Eliminate the safety risk – sack the worker

A curious workplace safety and industrial relations issue has appeared in the Golden Circle factory in Queensland as reported in the Courier-Mail.  57-year-old forklift driver, Lance Pedersen has been sacked because he was found to be morbidly obese and with osteoarthritis in his knees.

The newspaper article raises many personnel management issues and there are sure to be more issues that have not been reported but a remarkable quote is reported from a company spokesperson:

“Golden Circle has an obligation to ensure the health and safety of all our employees,” the spokesman said. “We are therefore unable to continue to employ Mr Pedersen.”

From the statements on the Heinz Australia website, the company that owns Golden Circle, there is certainly an active health and wellbeing focus:

“Great Culture – being encouraged to do well and rewarded for effort. We relish the challenges our roles afford us, in a supportive and fairly relaxed environment.  It’s a family friendly workplace with a host of benefits that prove that a well rounded lifestyle is valued here.  Performance bonuses, paid parental leave, volunteer leave, fresh fruit, subsidised gym benefits, health and wellbeing programs, discounted stock purchase plans, free life and accident insurance, just to name just a few.”

In the context of general safety management, it is difficult to reduce the risks posed to themselves and others by morbidly obese workers.  It is a matter that, if not handling carefully, could be seen to be impinging on personal freedoms and choice.  The issue has been mentioned several times in SafetyAtWorkBlog.

The Courier-Mail article identifies how important it is to manage the changing of work tasks.  Pedersen was moved from driving a forklift to a job that would require standing.  There is insufficient information to know whether the forklift job was sedentary or required the driver to repeatedly get on or off the vehicle but clearly the job task and the working environment of working “…on the beverage line, where he would be required to stand to pack and monitor drinks..”, even for a short period, is very different from being on a forklift.

A spokesperson for Heinz Australia provided SafetyAtWorkBlog with the following statement on the matter of Lance Pedersen’s dismissal which provides a context for the quote at the top of this article:

“As you might appreciate, we have a policy of not commenting publicly on the medical status of any of our employees.

We explored alternative duties for Mr Pedersen but nothing suitable was available.   Golden Circle has an obligation to ensure the health and safety of all of our employees (in accordance with the Workplace Health and Safety Act). We are therefore unable to continue to employ Mr Pedersen.  We have offered counselling services to Mr Pedersen and his family.

We would not do anything to jeopardise the health and safety of our employees.”

With the increased regulatory attention on health issues in Australia through public health and occupational health, these sorts of issues will become more common and companies need to prepare their staff on how to manage the issues.  This is not a new scenario for many workplaces but the OHS context and attention is an additional consideration.  The best way to minimise disruption to the company and distress to the worker is to communicate with all relevant stakeholders and try to resolve the issues without insult or hurt – one of the most difficult personnel management tasks.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

4 thoughts on “Eliminate the safety risk – sack the worker”

  1. Anyone getting involved in this matter is definitely in for hard time, as this is no doubt one touchy subject. Considering they tried everything they could to keep him in the workplace though, there just didn\’t seem any way other than paying him for nothing. Would you do the same if you where in their shoes? I think not.

    Life is cruel sometimes, his disabilities where not his fault, or maybe he was morbidly obese through eating which made the conditions in his knees really bad??

    We will never know the truth anyway, a story changes everytime someone new hears it.

  2. Kevin – as in Mr Pedersens case. Some people have no choice! The crap that happens is forced upon them weather they like it (or deserve it for that matter) or not. I cannot comment on Golden Circle – they sound just grouse, to be honest. However, from experience, many companies with which I have had contact over the last 32 years turned out to be nothing like the spin & hype with which they presented themselves. Some have proved to be almost totally inhuman when dealing with employees on a one to one basis. This is not a reflection on Golden Circle, but the truth must be told by someone. It is very rarely told by the corporate body from my experience. Obviously I have had some bad ones & this is probably not the norm. I have worked for some great companies with wonderful people skills & management philosophy – they simply have been outnumbered by the bad ones at about 8:1. Just my opinion!

  3. I understand about a company\’s duty of care to all employees and accept (in a general way) that the company has the right to terminate an employee who cannot perform the duties or his disabilities prevent him from doing the job safely and without harm to others. Will the company also terminate all smokers, all diabetics, all those who enjoy a bit too much alcohol? Because these factors also impact negatively on the performance of tasks in the workplace.
    Or could it be that the transfer from forklift duties to beverage line duties was strategic and fit their overall plan to terminate someone who looked different and not a perfect size 36?

    1. I think this case is one that could be used to discuss \”as far as is reasonably practicable\”. The employer has ensured safety to a level that is \”as far as is reasonably practicable\” but it remains a level that is unacceptable to the worker. I forecast that the Courts and tribunals will be called on frequently in the next few years to resolve these disputes.

      Lawyers would say this is part of the process of establishing a good base of OHS case law but this process comes from distress and, possibly, pain in each circumstance. Would anyone really choose to be a test case when legal and court action frequently increases stress and creates long-lasting disharmony?

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