Avoiding Workplace Liability: Obesity

by Robert on October 22, 2014

Recent court rulings have expanded workplace definitions of obesity, widening employer accountabilities to provide accommodations for affected employees.

Severe Obesity: A Workplace Disability

164324037Obesity should be included under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and employers must treat it as a condition protected from discrimination under law, similar to other disabilities, a U.S. District Court recently ruled in Missouri.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the governing agency for the ADA, has stated unequivocally that employers can’t discriminate against individuals with disabilities. This is established law, says Lockton Companies Assistant Vice President and HR Consultant Stacie Engelmann.

Employers should also be careful about making obesity assumptions, specifically during the hiring process, for example, where an applicant is applying for a job that requires physical labor, such as lifting more than 25 pounds. Engelmann advises that a physical screening should be part of the hiring process because—whether the individual looks fit or not—he or she may have an underlying health condition or some other physical or mental impairment that surfaces during the physical examination. Having a health care provider acknowledge the new hire is physically able to perform the job is also in the employer’s best interest, spreading accountability and limiting liability going forward, she said.

But there’s now a greater onus of obligation on employer’s to make accommodation. A forklift operator, for example, who has been able to do his job and then becomes obese, might pose the kind of situation where an employer needs to make accommodation. The forklift operator’s seat belt may no longer fit around his waist, for example, impairing his ability to do his job for safety reasons. To limit liability it would then be advisable for an employer to try to make accommodation with a seatbelt extender, if one was available, says Engelmann.

In light of the American Medical Association’s recent designation of obesity as a disease, we might expect a rise in obesity discrimination cases.

Evaluating Your Response

Employers may want to take a fresh look at evaluating their internal and ADA-defined interactive process, ensuring that there’s good two-way communication and dialogue between HR, managers and direct reports. HR should learn from the employee if there’s a piece of equipment that needs modification, or if a working hours schedule modification is in order, for example. Then HR might ask the employee for some back-up information—this is the type of back and forth that’s encouraged, adds Engelmann.

Employers need to review their HR policies to make sure employees and managers know where to go to request a workplace accommodation, if needed.

Our Lockton HR professionals are ready to help evaluate your internal practices and establish better procedures. Please reach out if we can be of further assistance at RRuotolo@Lockton.com.

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