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.