Religious Headwear and Health and Safety. What Every FM needs to know

An extremely sensitive issue for any manager, meeting your legal compliance at the same time as protecting your employees’ legal rights doesn’t always mix. As a Facilities Manager, you are responsible for your team.

There’ve been a plethora of court cases surrounding companies dismissing employees due to their religious headwear affecting the ‘style’ of the company. This is the kind of discrimination that obviously should not be accepted in any workplace. But when said headwear genuinely poses a risk to the safety of that employee, who is to say what should happen?

Human rights

The Equality Act 2010 protects people from discrimination on the grounds of religion, belief, or lack thereof.  This includes the right to wear religious clothing.

Most companies have some form of dress code in place, regardless of their industry. To avoid indirect discrimination, however, it must be proven that there is a legitimate reason for such a policy.

These guidelines should always be based on the effect that clothing will have on the person’s ability to do their job. For example, its impact on health and safety, security, or the company’s professional image.

Health and Safety Law

Employers and superiors are legally required to protect people’s health and safety in the workplace, as stated in the Health and Safety and Work Act 1974. This involves risk assessments and managing control measures to ensure everyone is protected from harm within their workplace.

As a Facilities Manager, it’s likely that health and safety regulation is a huge part of your role. Making sure your colleagues have a safe and secure environment to work in is what you do every single day.

What you need to know

However, there are also laws regarding Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in the workplace. In such an extremely hands-on industry, your facilities team will be working in a range of hard FM tasks. Many of these will require some form of protective clothing to keep them safe. Yet keeping your company within legislation and protecting your colleagues may bring rise to certain issues.

Imagine you are managing a project which requires everyone involved wears hardhats. It’s possible things could fall and harm them. It seems like a simple measure to keep your colleagues safe which is reasonably easy to enforce. But what would you do if an employee’s religious headwear prevented them from wearing their safety helmet?

It’s an issue that has arisen many times in the past, and one that you are very likely to face at some point as a manager. On the one hand, you are obligated by the Health and Safety Act to ensure PPE is used where necessary, on the other, you must respect people’s religious freedom.

Some laws in the UK can be seen to actively contradict these occupational health and safety requirements. Notably, turban-wearing Sikhs are excused from the usual rules regarding wearing head protection whilst on construction sites.

Sections 11 and 12 of the Employment Act 1989 state that this rule, which would usually be imposed on every worker ‘by virtue of any statutory provision or rule of law’, will not apply if they are Sikh and wear a turban.

Failing a reasonable attempt to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs counts as indirect discrimination. The same rule may be applied to everyone regardless of their religious requirements, but a blanket protective headgear policy may put those who wear religious headwear at a disadvantage. Asking an employee to remove a piece of religious headwear violates their right to religious freedom, but doing nothing may mean the employee is unable to do their job effectively. 

So, should the rules be ignored?

There have been multiple cases where the dangers of wearing religious headwear in certain workplaces can outweigh any possible arguments. It may be justifiable to prohibit certain items of clothing depending on the task at hand. For example, wearing a long veil whilst using moving machinery could pose a serious entanglement risk and cause severe harm.

A Facilities Manager is very often considered the most appropriate person to determine what exactly constitutes as a health and safety risk in their particular environment. You know the facility better than anyone else, so it could be up to you to decide what changes can and cannot be made.

An independent investigator could also provide an unbiased view on whether your company is complying with requirements whilst not discriminating or creating barriers for those who wear religious headwear. Consult with external experts if you feel it’s necessary.

You must ask yourself who will be at risk if the worker is excused from using the PPE. In many cases regarding turban-wearing Sikhs, the worker is happy to accept the risks of not wearing the protective headwear. It means the company is not liable for any incidents and the employee is able to observe their religion. If only their own safety is at stake, and no one else’s, the decision should be the employee’s own.

It’s extremely important for Facilities Managers to collaborate with their employers and other professionals to ensure their employees are both safe and respected.

If your reasons for prohibiting religious headwear can be justified on health and safety grounds, then it does not count as discrimination. Even with this in mind, you should still do everything in your power to come up with another idea in order to help your colleague.

Alternative solutions

Sometimes, excusing the employee from the PPE requirements isn’t an option. If others will be put at risk by the decision, it is up to you to find a suitable alternative. You must:

  • Discuss new rules and changes to equipment with colleagues before implementation to see if any problems can be avoided. Report back to your superiors if any changes need to be made. This may help to avoid work refusals or discrimination lawsuits.
  • See if it is possible to eliminate the need for PPE by modifying equipment or machinery and adapting administrative controls.
  • Consider different kinds of protective clothing or alterations. For example, in the case of a Sikh worker unable to wear a hardhat because of their turban, they may be willing to just wear their bunga (the smaller, inner part of the turban) under their safety helmet, without the bulky outer part.

In the worst-case scenario, you might decide on making reasonable accommodations for the worker, such as reassigning them to a job that doesn’t require that PPE. Discuss this with the employee beforehand to make sure they’re happy with the decision.

The safety of the company’s employees should always come first. Make sure you find a way to accommodate people’s religious beliefs without compromising their safety.

Need advice on recruitment, health and safety or any of the issues raised above? We’re happy to help! Contact us on 0207 118 48 48 or info@maxwellstephens.com.