Obesity In The Workplace

An interesting article says that because of the rise in obesity statistics, a two-year study using 3D scanners is underway to measure the size of workers’ bodies in the offshore oil and gas industry. This is so as to better inform the ergonomic safety design of rigs and equipment because, practically speaking, the workers only have a limited space to live and work in.

Aside from ergonomic redesign, possible health-related changes are also being considered. Although this is mostly limited to launching campaigns promoting healthier lifestyles, it’s also possible that medical examination standards will prevent seriously obese people from travelling and working offshore.

In the Workplace

This brings up a very sensitive topic. What are the practical implications of obesity in the workplace? Can obese individuals be passed up for employment or promotion opportunities because of their size, or even dismissed therefore?

Generally, discrimination is only illegal when it’s for certain specified categories, such as race, religion, age and sex.  Therefore, because obesity doesn’t fall into this category, discrimination against the overweight in this context isn’t strictly illegal. Sometimes it’s argued that obesity is a form of disability, but typically overweight Americans are only protected from discrimination if their weight is registered as a formal disability under the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, which constitutes a very small portion of overweight population.

In any case it’s tricky to know how often people are discriminated against for their size in the work place. The real reason someone is passed up for a job or fired isn’t always given. However, there have been a few cases of challenging discrimination against obesity in the work place.

For instance, Lisa Harrison, a manager of child-care services for children of patients at drug treatment centre, was fired in late 2007 supposedly because she was unable to perform CPR in the event of an emergency. Suspecting the real reason to be because of her size, she took the matter to court. Unfortunately, she did not live long enough to see the outcome of the case as she died at the age of at the age of 48 after checking into a hospital for gallstones and possibly suffering a blood clot. Her estate, however was awarded $125 000 for discrimination.

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Is there such a thing as fair discrimination?

In the case of oil rigs possibly discriminating due to size, there is a practical reason for it. Workers are sharing a confined space, and not only might obesity present a challenge for performing certain tasks, but could also pose a safety risk, thus prompting an evaluation of factors involved in risk management at oil conferences. For instance, Dr Arthur Stewart, project leader at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen where the body size survey is being done, says: “If you can imagine an emergency situation, body size, when you’re trying to move quickly and urgently, can become potentially critical, particularly if you are trying to escape through a narrow window for example.”

In that kind of scenario, perhaps it is then fair to discriminate against size, as lives are hanging in the balance. However, a hospital in Texas won’t hire anyone with a BMI above 35, and not for safety or health reason, but for projecting a certain image, which they readily admit to. Is that fair? Probably not. Is it legal? Apparently so.

Queenie Bates is an avid writer and researcher, with a particular interest in the area of sustainability. She tried to stay up to date by researching energy videos and whitepapers, and anything else interesting she can find on the Internet.

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