The court's advocate general Niilo Jääskinen, its most influential legal adviser, recently announced that when obesity reaches the point where it "plainly hinders participation in professional life" it can be treated as a disability.
The announcement is in relation to a Danish child-minder, Karston Kaltoft, whose case made it to the European Court after he claims he was dismissed due to his weight.
The case is still on-going, but the advocate general's statement is significant because it gives a strong indication of the court's position. The point whereby an employee's obesity can be considered a disability is likely to be set at a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or more.
Emma Hamnett, employment lawyer at Clarke Willmott, warned that employers could now face significant costs as they may be required to make "reasonable adjustments" to the workplaces of obese employees.
She added that the ruling may lead to difficult conversations with workers about their weight.
"How is an employer supposed to know a worker’s BMI?" she asked. "Asking an employee if they have a high BMI or whether they consider themselves to be at a disadvantage in the workplace because of their size could cause a great deal of upset. Employers must take care not to isolate workers on this basis, so as to avoid claims for constructive dismissal or harassment."
Danny Clarke, occupational health manager at business support expert ELAS, urged all businesses to educate their staff and implement effective policies to avoid liability.
"The key is to make sure all people are treated as individuals and offered fair opportunities so that everyone feels valued," he said. "Different people bring different things to the table in any workplace and discriminating against certain groups is damaging to a company and its growth.”