Housing and social care services group Mears has banned its contractor and maintenance workers from having beards over health and safety concerns.
In a letter to staff, the firm said employees who work in a “potentially dusty environment” must be clean shaven to be able to “wear appropriate dust masks effectively”.
It added: “A ‘goatee’ may be acceptable so long as it does not hinder the correct fitting…of dust masks.”
Gloucester-based Mears said the policy is now being rolled out nation-wide for the entire company after the issue was discussed at a health and safety meeting.
However, the firm said there are exceptions, including whether a beard is worn for religious reasons. But it said a note must be provided by the relevant “church, mosque, synagogue, temple”.
The company employs around 20,000 people, which includes care workers.
HSE guidlines on beards and face masks state that “facial hair – stubble and beards – makes it impossible to get a good seal of the mask to the face”.
Trade union Unite condemned the ban as “penny pinching stupidity”, claiming the firm could offer different masks that offer protection for bearded workers.
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.”
In response Mears’ group health & safety director Mark Elkington 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, if assessed to be suitable, we will supply that hood so Unite’s reference to cost saving is absolute nonsense.
Mr Elkington added that the ban 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,” he said.
In its last full-year the firm reported pre-tax profit of £29.4m off revenue of £940.1m.