Outsourced housing maintenance company Mears issued the advice to workers during a “tool box talk” in Tower Hamlets.
The company says the ban requires all workers to be clean shaven in order to “wear appropriate dust masks effectively.”
The company will only make exceptions if a worker can’t shave for medical reasons, if a dust mask cannot be worn for medical reasons or a person has a beard for religious purposes.
Medical certificates must be provided in the first two instances, with a note from a church/ mosque/ synagogue or temple demanded in the second. A letter from Mears shared on social media adds: “Even in the above circumstances, this is not a disclaimer and not guaranteed.”
But Unite, the UK’s largest construction union condemned the move as “penny pinching stupidity.”
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.
“Unite will always put the safety of our members first and 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.”
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.”
Mark Elkington, Group Health and Safety Director at Mears has responded to the criticism. He said: “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.
“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.”
The Health and Safety Executive states if there are any gaps around the edges of a mask, ‘dirty air’ will pass through them and into the workers lungs.
It adds: “Facial hair – stubble and beards – make it impossible to get a good seal of the mask to the face.
“If you are clean-shaven when wearing tight-fitting masks (ie those which rely on a good seal to the face), this will help prevent leakage of contaminated air around the edges of the mask and into your lungs. You will therefore be breathing in clean air, which will help you stay healthy.
“If there are good reasons for having a beard (eg for religious reasons), alternative forms of RPE, that do not rely on a tight fit to the face, are available.”
In 2015 stone masonry boss Thomas Bushby was fined for failing to safeguard the health of his workers by not providing masks to protect them from silica and in some instances supplying masks which were not suitable due to their facial hair.