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Flying in the face of obesity

Earlier this year and ahead of the North Sea’s annual programme of maintenance, the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) announced a series of measures to improve the safety of offshore operations. These include plans to prevent helicopter operators from carrying passengers whose body size means they would not be able to escape through push-out window exits in an emergency.

Recent media coverage of this particular safety proposal has once again put how businesses across all sectors can tackle obesity in the workplace under scrutiny.

Off-shore oil industry concerns

The average weight of an offshore worker has increased by 19 per cent in 25 years and by more than 3 stone in a 10-year period. They have also become 2 centimetres taller on average. These are sobering statistics to consider, given that helicopter escape windows are legally required to have a minimum size of 17 inches by 14 inches, which is too small for many workers to escape through.

A string of fatal North Sea crashes which have occurred since 2002, some of which involved victims who sadly died trapped inside the helicopters, resulted in the CAA ordering a report which was published in February 2014. The report concluded, amongst other matters, that changing the size of escape window is “generally impractical”, whilst restricting passenger size is not. The proposed passenger size restriction is due to take effect on 1 April 2015.

Other safety proposals include only allowing passengers to fly if they are seated next to a push-out window exit so they can escape, as an interim measure, until improved emergency breathing equipment is provided.

However, union officials have raised concerns about potential job losses faced by bigger workers. Oil executives are also concerned about the effect on productivity if passenger size restrictions reduce the carrying capacity of the whole North Sea fleet.  In addition, the original timetable of offshore helicopter safety measures has had to be extended to commence from September 2014 instead of June 2014 due to worries, for example, about the adverse impact on safety critical maintenance scheduled to take place offshore over the summer.

Other sectors and obesity

Obesity not only presents general health risks, but obese workers are also likely to encounter health and safety issues in workplaces across all sectors. These issues might relate to the use of equipment, seating, fatigue, not to mention the risk of employment law issues such as bulling or discrimination in the workplace.

The cost of time, money and resources faced by employers who grant sick leave to obese employees has also contributed to the government and business, both in the UK and abroad, taking steps to minimise the impact of obesity in the workplace. Examples include:

  • Wal-Mart in the USA was famed for deterring unhealthy job applicants, by suggesting that all jobs were to include some physical activity
  • The Directorate General of Civil Aviation in India has issued new guidelines stating that airline crew members could be declared ‘unfit’ and removed from service if they did not adhere to a ‘normal’ body mass index
  • The bus company, Stagecoach, in the UK removed drivers from their duties whilst they exceeded the load-bearing capacity and encouraged them to diet or exercise, which resulted in some significant success.

Practical steps

Whilst obesity is primarily a public health issue, there are clearly implications for the workplace. Following the case of Walker v Sita Information Networking Computing in 2013, obese employees may also demand to be treated as disabled as a result of impairments flowing from the condition. This would impose further responsibilities on employers to make reasonable adjustments for obese staff. Employers will need to take account of obese workers in work design and risk assessments to ascertain whether any special arrangements need to be made.

In the case of off-shore workers, the CAA has suggested that many options could be explored, such as seat allocation where window sizes vary in different helicopters, and where windows are larger than the legal minimum size.

More generally, an international healthcare group has suggested that the best suggestion to tackle obesity is to encourage a healthy diet and active lifestyle among employees, such as:

  • Encouraging cycling to work by providing showers at work and securing parking facilities for bikes
  • Encouraging lunchtime walks and local leisure activities, such as swimming
  • Contributing towards gym membership
  • Serving healthier food in staff restaurants
  • Encouraging participation in active charity challenges, such as sponsored fun-runs (perhaps as opposed to charity bake sales)
  • Providing information on reputable weight-control apps
  • Providing regular health checks.

For employers, these practical steps would also demonstrate a positive and responsible approach to addressing the risks posed by Obesity.

For further advice please contact Dominic Watkins, Partner.

This information is intended as a general discussion surrounding the topics covered and is for guidance purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. DWF is not responsible for any activity undertaken based on this information.