Union claims housing contractor says facial hair may affect effectiveness of dust masks

Trade union Unite has slammed a move from Mears Group allegedly banning workers from sporting beards while working.

The union claimed the social housing contractor had written to workers, requiring them to be clean-shaven in order that dust masks might fit properly and work effectively in dusty environments. Goatee beards were exempt, Unite acknowledged.

While facial hair could affect cheaper, tight-fitting face masks, the union said “other forms of masks which have their own airflow such as helmets, hoods and visors can be safely used with a beard”.

The union claimed that Mears’ letter said workers could keep beards for medical or religious reasons, but official documents supporting the decision would need to be provided, and even then there were no ‘beard guarantees’, union officials noted.

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.”

Mears should enter into a proper consultation process with the union and the wider workforce, Unite said.

In response, Mark Elkington, Mears Group’s health and safety director, said the company was “pretty surprised that Unite, who claim to have the safety of workers at heart, have taken this disappointing stance”.

In a statement Elkington 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.” 

Elkington said the alternative to a dust mask was a full hood over the head, “which brings its own risks”, sometimes affecting the wearer’s hearing and line of sight, plus they could be uncomfortable.

“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, if assessed to be suitable, we will supply that hood so Unite’s reference to cost saving is absolute nonsense,” he added. 

“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.”

Elkington said the beard move affected “a very small percentage of our workers who would be in that environment. One has to question the real motives of Unite which has chosen not to take the safety of its members seriously in order to make a cheap point.”