Ban on beards at work: a safety issue or ‘penny-pinching stupidity’?
Building firm Mears has introduced a ban on staff wearing beards due to, it says, health and safety risks.
In a letter to all staff, Mears stated that due to working in a potentially dusty environment, from now on all operatives must come to work clean shaven to be able to wear appropriate dust masks effectively. However, it says, “A ‘goatee’ may be acceptable so long as it does not hinder the correct fitting of said dusk masks.”
The letter goes on to explain that there may be exceptions if a beard cannot be shaven or a dust mask cannot be worn for medical reasons, in which case a valid medical certificate / note would be required.
Meanwhile, if a beard is worn for religious purposes then Mears is asking for a note to be provided by the church / mosque / synagogue / temple, etc.
The company concludes the letter by saying: “This is now a Mears nationwide policy for the entire company. The HSE take a strong stance in this, as do Mears. Anybody not adhering to the policy will be taken down the disciplinary route.”
Construction union Unite has condemned the move; Regional Official for London Mark Soave said:
“This is a highly delicate issue, which has huge cultural, religious and personal issues and where sensitivity should be the watchword. Instead members have been handed a decree from on high. This is clearly a case of Mears going for the cheapest option and amounts to penny-pinching stupidity. Other forms of masks are available and these should be offered to existing workers. Mears needs to withdraw this decree.”
Unite National Health and Safety Adviser, Susan Murray, continues:
“Before any policy is introduced there should be full and proper consultation. It is crucial that the policy recognises the diversity of the workforce and the principle that workers should be consulted and given a choice of several correctly specified types of respiratory protective equipment so they can choose the one they like.”
However, the HSE advises that many masks rely on a good seal against the face so that, when you breathe air in, it is drawn into the filter material where the air is cleaned. If there are any gaps around the edges of the mask, ‘dirty’ air will pass through these gaps and into your lungs.
“Facial hair – stubble and beards – make it impossible to get a good seal of the mask to the face,” it says. “If you are clean-shaven when wearing tight-fitting masks (i.e. those which rely on a good seal to the face), this will help prevent leakage of contaminated air around the edges of the mask and into your lungs. You will therefore be breathing in clean air, which will help you stay healthy.”
The HSE does advise that alternatives are available if there is a good reason for wearing a beard and that RPE is available in different sizes to allow for the facial differences of workers. Gender, ethnicity, build and many other factors mean that one size of facepiece will not fit everyone.
RPE must be both adequate and suitable:
- Adequate – It is right for the hazard and reduces exposure to the level required to protect the wearer’s health.
- Suitable – It is right for the wearer, task and environment, such that the wearer can work freely and without additional risks due to the RPE.
Employers should make sure the selected RPE is of the right size and can correctly fit the wearer by carrying out a fit test.
More detailed information is available in HSE’s guide, Respiratory protective equipment at work.