With the recent news that welding fume has been classified as carcinogenic to humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) there has been much talk in the workplace about respiratory protective equipment (RPE) and facial hair.
Before we discuss respiratory protection it’s important to remember that any form of personal protective equipment, including RPE, should be a last resort and controls that work collectively should be preferred. For instance, efficient extraction at source will protect all personnel in the workplace while RPE only protects the individual. Assuming adequate control can be achieved with extraction we do not need to provide RPE.
There are various types of RPE but one of the most common types are filtered face masks. These can be reusable or disposable and are relatively inexpensive. Filtered face masks are perfectly adequate for protecting employees from harm due to the inhalation of airborne contaminates, however they rely on forming a good seal between the mask and the users face.
Face fit testing can be carried out to confirm that the RPE is effective in protecting the user. Unfortunately, employees with facial hair growth may find that it is impossible to form a seal between their face and the face mask. In these cases, the RPE will not protect the individual from exposure to the harmful substance as intended.
What are the options if an employee has a beard but also needs to wear RPE to protect their health?
- Explain the issue and ask the employee to attend work clean-shaven. This may be emotive, and employees may refuse. As an employer you have no option other than to protect your employees from harm so you may have to insist that they shave or make alternative arrangements.
Enforcing employees to shave using your company disciplinary procedure may be possible but you should consult your human resources adviser to ensure that you follow the correct procedures.
Be aware that “religion or belief” is one of nine protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 and that employees who have facial hair due to religious reasons may be able to claim that they were discriminated against!
Also consider employees who may have medical reasons why they should not shave. They should be able to provide medical evidence to back this up.
- Another option is to remove the employee from exposure by making reasonable adjustments to their work or providing alternative work. This option may not be possible and needs careful consideration. Again, you may need to consult your human resources advisor for guidance on the correct procedures.
- Provide air-fed respiratory protection. Air-fed RPE does not rely on a seal between the face and mask and will protect employees with beards from exposure to hazardous substances. This may be an ideal solution, but the main disadvantage is that it can be expensive.
By Ainslie Johnson GradIOSH – Risk Consultant