By Lisa Rix
Construction firm Mears has banned its workers from heavy stubble or beards on the grounds of health and safety. Its reasoning is that dust masks can only effectively protect workers where they are sealed against the skin, and so workers must be clean shaven. However, Mears have allowed beards in the following exceptions:
Trade Union Unite is outraged at the new rule. They think this is “penny pinching” by Mears, with Mears choosing the cheapest solution to the issue rather than investing in a variety of masks which would be appropriate to each individual worker. Mears maintains that all facemasks have the same issue against facial hair and that the only alternative is a full hood (which Mears wish to minimize the use of due to other risks which come with them). Unite is calling for a proper consultation with Mears to discuss a more appropriate solution to the health and safety issue than a “beard-ban”.
A dress-code rule such as this can clearly have huge cultural, religious and personal implications. However, the Health and Safety Executive guidance seems to support Mears’ approach:
“… a reliable face seal can only be achieved if you are clean-shaven in the area where the facepiece seal touches your face. You will therefore be asked to be suitably clean-shaven… If you are unable to be suitably clean-shaven for an unavoidable reason (e.g. where a beard is worn for religious reasons), then your employer should provide you with a suitable loose fitting facepiece that does not require you to be clean-shaven, or make alternative arrangements so that the risk to your health is either prevented or adequately controlled.”
Therefore, due to the exceptions Mears has allowed for, the new rule is probably in the best interests of its workers. However, the Health and Safety Executive guidance also provides that when selecting and using respiratory protective equipment such as face masks, companies should consult with trade union safety representatives, employee representatives or the employees themselves. Therefore, Mears might be minded to consult properly with Unite to resolve the disagreement.