Beards have been banned by construction firm Mears due to health and safety concerns.

Staff were told at a meeting in Tower Hamlets that beards were being banned so tight-fitting dust masks could be worn effectively.

Exceptions will only be made if a worker can’t shave or a mask cannot be worn for medical or religious reasons and a medical certificate or a letter from a place of worship is presented.

Mears Tower Hamlets is responsible for undertaking the repairs and maintenance on approximately 12,000 of Tower Hamlet Council’s properties.

A letter from head office states the ban is now “nationwide policy for the entire company”.

It adds that a goatee “may be acceptable so long as it does not hinder the correct fitting of said dust masks”.

The decision has been criticised by Britain’s biggest union, Unite, as “penny-pinching stupidity”, reports The Guardian .

Unite regional official for London Mark Soave said other forms of masks are available and should be offered to avoid the ban, which should be withdrawn pending a proper consultation with the workforce.

He added: “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.”

But Mears has stood by its position.

The company’s group health and safety director Mark Elkington said Unite’s stance was “disappointing” and the rule had been made to ensure it was fulfilling its legal obligation to keep its employees safe.

He added:“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.”

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