A European court is expected to rule today on whether obesity is a disability – a decision which is likely to have a major impact on employers in the oil and gas sector.
Legal experts have warned the move would offer crucial protection to offshore workers who fall foul of new helicopter safety legislation limiting the size of people travelling to North Sea platforms.
The Advocate General, the European Union’s most senior legal adviser, has already concluded that severe obesity could amount to a disability under the Equal Treatment Directive.
His opinion is only a recommendation but it is widely expected that following its deliberations the Court of Justice of the European Union will rubber stamp it making it binding on all member states.
Claire-Jane Nicol, a partner in national law firm Bond Dickinson and an employment lawyer, warned companies won’t be able to fire employees because they are obese under the new law.
This could come in conflict with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which has ruled that oil workers who could not fit through a helicopter’s emergency window while in a survival suit will not be allowed to fly as of April next year.
Ms Nicol said: “The increasing physical profile of the offshore oil and gas workforce over the last decade is of increasing concern to the industry
“Many companies already have initiatives to encourage and assist staff to reduce weight and to live a healthy lifestyle but this ruling will add a new dimension.
“Even in this sector, where the work can be very physically demanding, a company may not be able to sack an employee because they are obese. ‘Reasonable adjustments’ might have to be introduced to assist them to carry out their duties or an alternative job might have to be offered.
“It could also lead to difficult questions about weight and fitness on recruitment and about whether the cost of making special provision for severely obese employees can be justified.”
The ruling arises from the dismissal of a Danish childminder in 2010 because of his obesity, after 15 years of service. He claimed that this amounted to discrimination on the grounds of disability and the Danish court requested a preliminary ruling regarding EU law on discrimination.