We’ve been carrying out face fit tests and advising our clients on the selection and use of RPE (face masks and similar) for many years now.
Our position as occupational hygiene specialists means that we have been more exposed to this issue more than many of our peers and it has always been a difficult one to address.
The issue surrounding beards lies in both their current popularity and their incompatibility with good practice when it comes to protecting workers from dusts. A simple mantra we keep returning to in our toolbox talks and support work for clients across the UK is that you won’t see a fire fighter with a beard.
We’ve been reading about the case of Mears and the response from Unite (the Union) recently and whilst we do have sympathy with each party, overall we have to side with Mears rather than Unite. The simple truth is that beards and RPE don’t mix well, and whilst you can use air fed helmets they’re not always the right choice.
See below for comments from both Mears and from Unite. If you have your own questions please contact us to discuss what you can do.
Unite National Health and Safety Adviser Susan Murray said:
“An employer should first assess the risks presented by exposure to hazardous substances, then identify the steps needed to adequately control the risks; put them into operation and ensure they remain effective.
The use of Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) may be one of the control measures, but the wearing of face masks should be a last resort and priority should always be given to eliminating the risk.
Before any policy is introduced there should be full and proper consultation. 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 so they can choose the one they like.”
Seal not possible with beard or heavy stubble
Mark Elkington, Group Health and Safety Director of Mears Group responded as follow:
“We are pretty surprised that Unite, who claim to have the safety of workers at heart have 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 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.”