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Avoiding close shaves with airborne hazards

Avoiding close shaves with airborne hazards

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Whether it's silica, other dust, or asbestos fibres; many specialist engineering — and notably electrical — workers regularly encounter hazardous airborne materials.  According to a recent Health & Safety Executive (HSE) report, work-related respiratory diseases killed 12,000 people in 2014, with many of these in the construction and maintenance sectors.

Resultantly, operatives need to use suitable respiratory protective equipment (RPE), such as disposable or reusable dust masks to help protect them from hazardous airborne particles. 

The HSE and health and safety professions can advise on the correct type of RPE.  Nevertheless, even with the correct standard (protection factor FF3 or above) and the correct way to wear it (with a clean shaven face, to provide an adequate face seal), a problem still requires addressing: Namely, ‘what if my employee won’t shave...?’

The ECA’s Health and Safety and Employment law teams have compiled a concise guide for ECA members that advises employers on how to handle this sometimes tricky subject.  The guidance mainly covers a worker's personal preferences, rather than decisions not to shave made on religious or other grounds, though it also provides advice on this. 

Here are four key points for employers to consider...

  1. You must not let a worker rely on protection from tight-fitting RPE if they are not clean shaven, and a worker cannot waive the employer’s legal obligations to protect them from harm. In short, working in hazardous situations without effective tight-fitting RPE is not a legal or practical option. You can point this out to an employee.
  2. You can help avoid, or better manage this situation if you have a suitable clause that states what your requirements are in new employment contracts, and an agreed clause in existing employee contracts.
  3. Usually, employees understand the need to be clean-shaven but occasionally, some do not.  If a worker’s stance is still not to be clean shaven due to personal preference, and the points you have made are not sufficiently persuasive, you should ask them why they do not want to be clean shaven. You may also ask them why they would risk not having sufficient protection from airborne hazards.
  4. If the worker’s stance is still that they do not want to be clean shaven, then you should consider whether there are other reasonable and practical alternatives that will provide sufficient protection from the airborne hazard. ECA's guidance explores the most common alternatives.

And if all else fails..?

In practice, the above is usually sufficient but if not, it's time for further discussions and potentially, even disciplinary action. At the earliest stage possible, employees should be advised that failure to resolve the problem could result in disciplinary action, which in some cases, might mean dismissal. However, in the first instance, ask for the employee’s input with a view to resolving the issue.

While a worker’s facial hair might seem trivial, both employees and employers should appreciate how important the correct protective equipment, with the correct fit, is to ensuring worker protection while at work.

If you are an ECA member, you can read the full ECA guidance here. If you would like more information on the ECA's health and safety support, please visit

About the author:

Phil Joined the ECA in 2016 as Health and Safety Manager, in the Business and External Affairs department, having previously worked for IOSH as a senior policy and technical advisor. Phil is a chartered member of IOSH and a member of the ISO, 45001 working committee. 

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