A construction company, Mears Group, has banned its workers from having beards or heavy stubble, on the grounds of health and safety.
In a memo leaked to the media, the company explained the purpose of the new policy was to ensure that face masks were effective in dusty environments, and to reduce the risk of respiratory conditions. The company insists that staff should attend work clean-shaven so that the edge of the face mask is properly sealed against the skin.
The company has made some concessions: if a worker can present written medical evidence for not wearing a mask, or for not shaving, then it will be considered. The company will also make concessions for goatee beards, “so long as it does not hinder the correct fitting of said dust masks.”
The story came to the attention of the media following a complaint by trade union, Unite. A representative of the trade union said in a statement: “the arrogance of Mears is hair-raising”. In turn, the company have responded to the negative publicity by issuing a press release on their website explaining their reasons. The press release also makes specific reference to a November 2015 monetary penalty issued by the HSE against a company for exposing workers to the risk of silica dust.
Perhaps in acknowledgement that their policy could have the consequence of triggering claims for indirect discrimination on the grounds of religious belief, the company will consider requests for an exemption for religious reasons. The company memo requests workers to submit a supporting letter from the “church / mosque / synagogue / temple etc” if being clean shaven would interfere with a religious belief or practice.
Whilst the facts of the case are particularly unusual, it does demonstrate that employers should give thought to whether the implementation of new workplace practices could indirectly discriminate against certain protected groups of workers.