Can an employer require its employees to be clean shaven if workers wear facial hair for religious reasons? The situation gets even more complicated when workplace safety is involved.
A federal court has ruled the District of Columbia can’t force its firefighters to be clean shaven.
The court ruled firefighters who wear beards for religious reasons are exempt from the District’s no-beards policy under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The court said the District failed to prove its argument that beards stand in the way of good respirator fits. Firefighters use respirators to breathe when fires create a lack of oxygen.
The issue surrounds the firefighters’ use of self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBAs).
There are two types: Those with positive pressure have been shown to protect against any leakage that might be caused by facial hair.
However, questions remain about leakage with negative-pressure SCBAs.
The court ruled the District didn’t show why firefighters with beards could not be redeployed elsewhere when negative-pressure respirators were required.
As it stands now, the ruling is the opposite of what’s required by OSHA: “The [respirator fit] test shall not be conducted if there is any hair growth between the skin and the facepiece sealing surface, such as stubble beard growth, beard, mustache or sideburns which cross the respirator sealing surface.”
However, OSHA regulations don’t cover public employees.
Cite: Potter v. District of Columbia, U.S. Court of Appeals, DC Circuit, No. 07-7163, 3/6/09.