PPE / RPE AND DRESS CODES
Dress codes are often used in the workplace for a variety of reasons. Workers may be asked to wear a uniform to communicate a corporate branding, or wear clothing that presents a professional image (e.g. business suit) or restrict the type of casual dress that is not acceptable, such as shorts or t-shirts with offensive slogans. Whatever policy is applied it has to be appropriate and reasonable to the work environment, and must not be discriminatory.
A dress code can also be used by employers to ensure workers are safe. In such instances the rules relate to the job and must be reasonable in nature. For example it is reasonable to impose a strict requirement for workers to wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as safety boots, gloves, hard hats, hi-viz etc; or a requirement for someone working in a kitchen to tie their hair back or cover it for hygiene reasons. Risk Assessments will identify what is required.
What about the current ‘beardy’ trend and can an employer require an employee to be clean shaven?
There has been recent publicity surrounding a national construction company introducing a ban on staff wearing beards citing health and safety as the reason. This was on the basis that when working in potentially dusty environments that operatives must attend work clean shaven to be able to wear appropriate Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) (e.g. dust masks). Anyone who has received appropriate ‘face fit’ training will immediately understand the reason for this.
There was an exception that a ‘goatee’ beard may be acceptable but only if it did not hinder the fitting of a dust mask. The Company did recognise that some people may not be able to attend clean shaven for either:
- medical reasons (in which case the employee had to provide a medical certificate); or for
- religious reasons (in which case the employee had to provide a note from their church/mosque/ synagogue/temple etc.).
This was introduced as a Company-wide policy expressing the Company's strong stance on Health and Safety and reinforcing the advice given by the HSE (Health & Safety Executive). The Company’s position is that if a worker suffers respiratory illness as a result of a poor fitting mask then they, not the employee are responsible. When presented with this problem, alternative PPE was provided such as air stream masks.
Employers have a legal responsibility to ensure that employees working in dusty or otherwise potentially hazardous environments are properly protected. Many masks rely on a good seal against the face so that, when you breathe air in, it is drawn in through 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 the wearer’s lungs.
Consequently, when wearing tight-fitting masks (i.e. those which rely on a good seal to the face), being clean-shaven will help prevent leakage of contaminated air around the edges of the mask and into the lungs; whereas facial hair – stubble and beards – make it impossible to get a good seal of the mask to the face.
Alternatives are available if there is a good reason for wearing a beard, in different sizes, to allow for the facial differences of workers. Gender, ethnicity, build and many other factors mean that one size of face piece 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.
It should be remembered that having facial hair does not mean a person could not do a good job and to reject a candidate solely because they have a beard, may result in you missing out on a talented employee. [One of our consultants recalls being pilloried for appointing a person with a blue Mohican hairstyle but who turned out to be an exemplary employee!]
Moreover, such a rule may be discriminatory as the Provision, Criterion, or Practice (PCP) of not being allowed to have a beard will apply generally to males and not females. Equally, there may be medical or religious reasons why a worker could not attend work clean shaven.
However, if there are safety reasons (as in the case above) requiring an employee to be clean shaven, then this may render such a rule as reasonable. It will depend upon all the circumstances but generally a sound Health & Safety requirement would outweigh a personal ‘right’ not to be discriminated against.
As usual, if you have any questions please feel free to contact us.