Unite union and Mears in dust-up as contractor bans maintenance workers from having beards

Unite and Mears are splitting hairs over the contractor's decision to ban its housing maintenance workers from having beards.

While the union has slammed the move as "hair-raising" and "penny pinching stupidity", the developer argues it wants all of its workers to be clean shaven so dust masks can be worn effectively.

The dust-up comes after members of Unite were told about the company-wide facial hair ban at a recent tool box talk.

Only workers who can’t shave or wear a dust mask for medical issues or a person who has a beard for religious reasons are exempt from the ruling.

Mark Elkington, group health and safety director at Mears Group, is shocked the union is not backing the move.

"We are pretty surprised that Unite, who claim to have the safety of workers at heart have taken this disappointing stance," he said.

"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."

Elkington said the alternative to a dust mask is a full hood over the head "which brings its own risks".

"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," he said.

"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, if assessed to be suitable, 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."

But 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 added: “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.”

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