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UpdatesJul 31, 2018

Confronting obesity: Discrimination or a health and safety duty?

The Federal Government has considered a proposal by the Global Obesity Centre (GLOBE) to measure the height and weight of primary school children every two years in an effort to tackle obesity in Australia.

A health survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2014/2015 revealed that more than 25% of young Australians aged between 5 and 17 were either overweight or obese.

The Federal Government has considered a proposal by the Global Obesity Centre (GLOBE) to measure the height and weight of primary school children every two years in an effort to tackle obesity in Australia.

A health survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2014/2015 revealed that more than 25% of young Australians aged between 5 and 17 were either overweight or obese.

However, Prof Allender of GLOBE said that: “The information we have is really quite inaccurate” and that the rate of obesity was probably higher.

In a public statement, Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt told News Corp: “The primary responsibility for children’s health rests with parents and the states who run the schools, but the Minister will refer the proposal to the joint state and Commonwealth body, AHMAC, to consider and provide advice.”

“Being healthy as a child sets you up for life and we encourage children and parents to work together on adopting healthy lifestyles,” he added.

Controversial proposal

But opinions about the controversial proposal are polarised and it has caused some contention, despite parents being able to request that their children opt-out from participating.

Advocates stress that the measurements would be taken in private by qualified physicians, and the results would only be available to researchers. Children, teachers and parents would not be privy to the data collected.

Prof Allender said that the scheme is necessary as two-thirds of Australian adults are either overweight or obese and that: “There are probably communities in Australia who are doing a really good job of improving the health of our kids and we can’t learn from them and improve the health of the whole nation unless we understand who is doing well”.

However, opponents to the plan argue that weighing children in an openly public manner could lead to mental health issues resulting from weight shame or bullying. They add that linking low weight to health may encourage the pursuit of unhealthy weight loss practices.

Also, exclusively collecting data on body weight, while not simultaneously analysing and working to change the behaviours that cause obesity, would be ineffective in the long run.

Such behaviours could probably continue well into the child’s adult working life.

How will this affect the future workforce?

With nearly 5 million Australians already classed as obese, this is an issue that employers must confront right now.

While workers have a responsibility to look after their own health, businesses must also monitor the wellbeing of their employees.

As the law stands, confronting an employee about their obesity is not discrimination when it’s a health and safety concern.

But an individual’s obesity shouldn’t always be blamed entirely on poor lifestyle and dietary choices outside of the workplace. Especially if they are required to undertake sedentary work or shift work.

Numerous health problems are directly linked to sedentary and shift work.

Overweight workers

Also, overweight workers may sometimes present additional health and safety risks that need to be minimised and managed.

Unfortunately, many employers aren’t fully aware of their legal obligations under health and safety legislation and could be liable to prosecution.

In 2013, Woolworths was ordered by the NSW Workers’ Compensation Commission to pay more than $430,000 in compensation to a worker’s children after she died from a heart attack on her way to a work meeting.

Her children claimed that the sedentary work she was required to undertake led to her heart attack, as the durations of her shifts, lack of rest breaks and multiple denials of annual leave requests gave her no time to exercise.

In its defence, Woolworths claimed that the employee’s death was caused by lifestyle factors unrelated to her employment, including obesity and smoking.

But the Arbitrator found that “the stresses and extent of her work, the fact she had little time for relaxation, felt she did not have time to exercise and hence had a very sedentary lifestyle” were the main factors that led to her heart attack.

The deceased employee’s three children were awarded compensation of $144,550 each.

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