Northern Ireland

Tribunal rules obese employees in Northern Ireland can get disability rights

Obese person eating Image copyright PA
Image caption The ruling is the first case of its kind in Northern Ireland

Obese workers in Northern Ireland can be deemed eligible for disability protections, an employment tribunal has ruled.

A former employee of health care diagnostics firm Randox Laboratories had argued he had been discriminated against because of his weight.

The landmark ruling is the first case of its kind in Northern Ireland.

The claimant said he had been subjected to harassment by several members of staff for more than four years.

In one instance, a colleague told him he was "so fat he could hardly walk".

'Intensified considerably'

A spokesman for the union, Unite, has confirmed that obesity could be considered a disability under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).

Last December, the European Court of Justice ruled that obesity could be classed as a disability.

Judges said that obesity in itself was not a disability - but if a person had a long-term impairment because of their obesity, then they would be protected by disability legislation.

The tribunal was told that the claimant suffered from gout, sleep apnoea and used crutches to walk occasionally and that his morbidly obese condition could therefore be classed as a disability.

The claimant said he had repeatedly tried to talk to the members of staff who were commenting on his weight, but that the verbal abuse "intensified considerably" until the claimant raised the issue with his company's human resources department in October 2013.

'Sustained harassment'

He said the remarks had left him in "such a distressed state" that he had gone on sick leave and felt unable to return to work. He left the company nine months later in June 2014.

Following an internal investigation by the County Antrim-based firm, a member of staff was later dismissed.

The tribunal found the claimant had suffered "sustained harassment and bullying" and said it was satisfied that he had been harassed because of his disability.

Unite said the decision meant other workers who suffered abuse on grounds related to their obesity now had "added protection" for pursuing their cases in employment tribunals.

In a statement, Randox Laboratories said: "This tribunal was the result of a dispute between two former staff members. As soon as the relevant departments were made aware of the issue, it was dealt with.

"This included a rigorous internal investigation, concluding in the immediate dismissal of the antagonist. Randox made every effort to secure the return to work of the claimant and to support him.

"We are aware of the new strand of discrimination that this case law has introduced and Randox continues to be an employer committed to ensuring zero tolerance on any form of discrimination."

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