A prominent construction company has recently sent a letter to employees, requiring them to be clean shaven for Health and Safety reasons. The decision came due to the combination of the company's concern about dust and the Health and Safety Executive's (HSE) "strong stance" on the matter.
Dust masks are a crucial part of PPE for many, reducing severe risks to health from dust, and asbestos. However, beards can compromise the performance of masks. The seal between your face and your mask is every bit as important as wearing the garment in the first place. The company in question believed that if HSE did a spot site visit and found workers wearing dust masks that were not sealed against the face then we would be liable to prosecution.
It’s worth noting that the official HSE Guidance Document for respiratory protective equipment (RPE) HSG53 states “the wearer needs to be clean-shaven around the face seal to achieve an effective fit when using tight-fitting facepieces. Training is a good opportunity to make employees aware of this. If workers have beards, or are unable to be clean-shaven, a tight-fitting device will not be suitable so an appropriate loose-fitting device should be chosen.”
The alternative to a mask would be a full hood. However, this can often create other hazards through restricted hearing and visibility, in addition to common complaints that they are uncomfortable to wear for prolonged periods. It is therefore vital that appropriate RPE is selected through a risk assessment process.
This is clearly a highly delicate issue, which has huge cultural, religious, and personal sensitivities. However, it is an issue that can’t be ignored as every employer in the UK has a legal responsibility to ensure that employees working in dusty or otherwise potentially hazardous environments are properly protected, and in recent years employers have been prosecuted for failing to fulfil this duty.