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Chewing the Fat

By PJ Chalmers, Empire HR

September 23 2008 - The epic saga of an Aberdeen firefighter sacked over claims he was overweight has provided employment experts with much to consider.

Kevin Ogilvie - in his 40s - was dismissed for being "too fat", a decision by Grampian Fire chiefs which brought the service to the brink of strike action for the first time since the UK-wide dispute of 2002.

Protracted negotiations between Grampian Fire & Rescue Service and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) finally led to a mutual agreement, brokered by mediator ACAS, and the re-instatement of Mr Ogilvie - subject to strict criteria which has not been revealed.

Empire HR believes the case places a heavy burden on companies to ensure their workforce - and policies - are in good shape, to avoid a similar dispute.

And the subject certainly provides plenty of food for thought: some industries, notably the offshore industry, have their own set of rules and regulations relating to the general health and fitness of an employee, and their ability to perform their duties. In other arenas, however, the situation is less clear and littered with potential pitfalls.

If it is believed that an employee is too heavy to carry out their role, Empire HR advises employers to investigate precisely why there may be a problem or risk and assess the exact duties required in the role and in particular those which are believed to be affected.

It is important that employers do not make unqualified assumptions about an employee's health. Therefore should the initial investigation conclude there may be a problem, it is vital to involve a qualified medical professional to assess the individual's health and fitness. An Occupational Health Advisor can also advise if their weight is due to an underlying health problem which may be covered under the Disability Discrimination Act, recommend suitable treatment or support, and any adjustments to allow the employee to continue safely in their role.

If an employer can offer this support, a plan can be put in place to aid the employee to lose weight. This could include covering the cost of exercise classes or a consultation with a nutritionist for example. If the employer is unable to afford the cost of such support, an Occupational Health Specialist could arrange an appointment for the employee.

If, after a period of support and treatment, no improvement is made and an employee is deemed to be unfit to carry out their role, the employer should enter into a period of consultation with the employee in an attempt to find an alternative role.

It is important however, that a problem with an employee's ability to carry out their role, whether this is due to a disability, an illness or indeed their weight, should be handled with the utmost sensitivity, care and respect.

Dealing with the employee using the company's Capability Policy and Procedure is vital to ensure that they are treated fairly.

Along with ensuring there is an obligation to attend Occupational Health assessments within contracts of employment, Empire HR would also advise employers to have up to date health and safety procedures and risk assessments in place, clearly highlighting any areas where weight may be an issue, such as weight restrictions for the use of machinery.

With such a sensitive issue an employer should seek professional advice before dismissing an employee, in order to minimise the risk of action as seen in the recent firefighter's case.

It would appear, at least in the case of Mr Ogilvie, that the weight brought upon his employer by union officials provides fascinating talking points for all employers, employees and staff representative bodies - and much to chew over.



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