UK housing maintenance contractor Mears has caused a media storm after it banned beards at a site in east London.
The company told staff working on a project in Tower Hamlets that workers had to be clean shaven so they were able to “wear appropriate dust masks effectively”.
The firm said exceptions would be made for staff who needed a beard for medical or religious reasons, as long as they were able to present a medical certificate or a letter from a place of worship. Sikhism, Islam and certain Judaic sects require men to maintain facial hair.
“The arrogance of Mears is hair-raising”– Mark Soave, Unite
Workers’ union Unite criticised the decision, calling it a “penny-pinching stupidity” because tight fitting face masks are the cheapest option, while other forms of masks which have their own airflow, such as helmets, hoods and visors, can be safely used with a beard.
Unite said it had obtained a letter from Mears stating: “This is now a Mears nationwide policy for the entire company.”
“The arrogance of Mears is hair-raising,” punned Unite regional official for London, Mark Soave.
“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.”
He added: “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.”
The letter adds that a goatee “may be acceptable so long as it does not hinder the correct fitting of said dust masks”.
The decision caused a lively debate on social media. Some posters accused Mears of “pogonophobia” and “beardism”.
Keith Flett, an “organiser” with the humorously titled Beard Liberation Front, claimed that “someone in a senior position is a pogonophobe” and pointed out that in many US States “such a ban would be viewed as discriminatory and hence illegal.
Others defended Mears’ decision, quoting Health and Safety Executive Guidelines that warn it is “impossible to get a good seal of the mask to the face” if the wearer has a beard or stubble. However, the regulations add that other forms of respiratory protective equipment are available that do not rely on achieving a tight fit to the wearer’s face.
Mears itself is standing by its decision.
Mark Elkington, the company’s health and safety director, said: “We are pretty surprised that Unite, which claims to have the safety of workers at heart has taken this disappointing stance. 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 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.”
The question that nobody has addressed is why, given the long history of both beards and construction, this has never been an issue before.