Wearing face veils in the workplace

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19 / 9 / 2013 11.13am

The NHS has a long tradition of balancing patient safety and religious views and practices. In 2008 there was some debate over new health guidelines introduced to stop the spread of infections such as MRSA and Clostridium difficile.

There is growing discussion on wearing full face veils, such as the burqa and the nijab. They should not be confused with the hijab which is a headscarf that does not cover the face. 

One of the stipulations in the 2008 guidelines was a ‘bare below the elbow’ dress code policy, which specified that arms should be bare below the elbows in clinical areas to ensure good hand and wrist washing.

Some Muslim doctors strongly objected to this, because it is regarded as immodest in Islam to expose any part of the body except the face and hands. At the same it was argued that this was a matter of patient safety. 

Alder Hey Hospital were one of many hospitals who worked with their staff to find a local solution. In this case the trust agreed to provide facilities for them to change their outerwear and hijab for theatre scrubs. Download the practical guide to religion and belief for the NHS. 

The above example is very much in line with the Equality Human Rights Commission (EHRC) 2013 guidance 'Religion or belief in the workplace: A guide for employers' - which was issued following a landmark European Court of Human Rights case.

The following is a summary of the EHRC guidance:

  • Employers needs to consider the cost, disruption and wider impact on business or work if the request is accommodated.
  • Employers need to consider whether there are health and safety implications for the proposed change.
  • Employers need to consider the disadvantage to the affected employee if the request is refused.
  • Employers need to consider the impact of any change on other employees, including on those who have a different religion or belief, or no religion or belief.
  • Employers needs to consider the impact of any change on customers or service users, and whether work policies and practices to ensure uniformity and consistency are justifiable.

In the NHS many trusts have already developed policies and practices in consultation with faith groups and staff involving the wearing of the veil.

Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation trust; decided that, to ensure effective communication, clothing which covers the face (veil/niqab) would not be permitted for any staff in contact with patients, carers or visitors or for staff in other roles where clear face to face communication is essential, for example, training.

At the same time staff who wished to wear a veil when they were not working – such as in breaks, or during their lunch, or walking around the buildings were allowed to do so. However they were asked to be prepared to remove their veil if asked to check their identity against their ID badge, in line with the guidance drawn up last year.

Similarly; The Royal London Hospital, St Bartholomew’s Hospital and Whipps Cross University Hospital, have policies that indicate that faces must not be covered while staff are treating patients.

In addition Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS trust, have policies in place outlining that face coverings should not be worn when delivering patient care in order to aid communication and minimise infection risks.

These cases illustrate that employers and employees have been able to find solutions to managing religious issues relating to the wearing of the veil in the workplace locally. 

The NHS has indicated that a general applicable ban on the wearing of full face veils in the workplace is not necessary or proportionate for any legitimate objective.

At the same time it has recognised through consultation with parties that some clearly defined restrictions on the wearing of full face veils for the purposes of public safety will be legitimate. In doing so professional standards have been maintained and hospitals have developed appropriate policies and practices in a way that is most appropriate for them to deliver a quality
service. 

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