Mears Group has enacted a beard ban to improve the health and safety of their workers, but is the decision right?
Last week the Guardian reported construction firm Mears had enacted a beard ban, citing health and safety reasons. The decision has been criticised for being heavy handed, but is it right for firms to take a hard line to keep workers safe?
Staff working for the group were told during a “tool box talk” in Tower Hamlet, London, that the decision to ban beards was undertaken to ensure all workers could “wear appropriate dust masks effectively”. Exceptions to this would only be made if a worker can’t shave or a mask cannot be worn for medical or religious reasons. A letter from the group said a goatee “may be acceptable so long as it does not hinder the correct fitting of said dust masks”.
The policy, which was rolled out nationally across the company, was heavily criticised by Unite. The union said the decision was “penny-pinching stupidity” and said the firm had failed to understand the implications of what they were asking from employees.
Unite regional official for London Mark Soave said: “The arrogance of Mears is hair-raising. 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. Unite will always put the safety of our members first and creating huge resentment and anger among your workforce is never the way forward.
“Mears needs to withdraw this decree and enter into a proper consultation with Unite and the workforce.”
Impact of policy
Unite’s national health and safety adviser, Susan Murray, said consideration needed to be made regarding the impact of any policy before it is implemented.
“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 RPE (respiratory protective equipment) so they can choose the one they like,” she said.
Mears Group’s health and safety director Mark Elkington expressed disappointment at Unite’s statement.
“We are pretty surprised that Unite, who claim to have the safety of workers at heart have taken this disappointing stance,” he said.
“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.
“The simple fact is that no dust mask can work effectively unless it forms a seal against the skin. That is not possible with a beard or even heavy stubble. If the Health and Safety Executive 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.
“The alternative to a dust mask is a full hood over the head, which brings its own risks. For example many of our operatives do not like wearing a full hood and it can affect hearing and line of sight. It can also be uncomfortable to wear and can raise concerns with our clients who do not like to see workers in such hoods because of how it looks to customers.
“It is vital to note, however, that if a risk assessment shows that the hood is a better option for a job or a worker insisted on having one, then we will supply that hood so Unite’s reference to cost saving is absolute nonsense.
“If one of our workers suffers respiratory illness as a result of a poor fitting mask then that is our responsibility and we place the safety of our workers at the top of the priority list. Finally it is worthy of note that this affects a very small percentage of our workers who would be in that environment.”