Risks v’s Razors?

Masked and hooded for the test spray

Masked and hooded for the test spray

I shaved this morning. Normally not a blogging event, but it was for a special reason: my mask fit test! The picture below shows me suited, masked – fitted properly of course over a clean shaven face – and hooded. My colleague and assessor, Katrina, sprayed increasingly large dose of saccharine spray into the hole in the front to assess if the mask was sealed correctly. So far, so weird. Now for the controversy…

The UK Health and Safety Executive are pushing mask fitting as a safety issue, however in order to get a suitable fit the wearer has to be clean shaven. If a subject… Actually lets just dispense with the politically correct language and call him ‘a bloke’! If a bloke cannot or will not attend the test clean shaven, they are referred to the Uni’s Occupation Health teams for further assessment (or maybe a shave!). This is stirring discontent among the men – from the magnificently bearded to the stubbly lazy. “Would a woman be expected shave all her hair off for a protective headwear test?”

Personally, I am impressed with the mask fit test. You need to carry out various actions while masked inside the white hood (which you can see in the photo), surrounded by saccharine spray. It seems all a bit of a joke with sprays that are too weak until, at the end of the test, you use a finger to ‘break’ the mask seal and go from completely protected, to marginally exposed and inhale unmistakably strong taste of saccharine. I now know how to fit a mask properly (after 20 years of working in labs) and that it works. But it seems pretty clear that these masks will only work if the seal between the skin and the mask is ait tight: facial hair will definitely break that seal and – to a greater or lesser degree – render the protection ineffective. In this context beards are bad!

How do individuals, organisations and governments deal with beards? Will they all be sensible and weigh up hazards and risks? Will organisations make work places safer and provide proper protective equipment, will employees balance risks against razors, safety and shaving, and take responsibility for the dangers they expose themselves too even with the employers best intentions? Will employers have to spend large amounts of money masking my bearded brothers with larger ‘head respirators’ so they look like an extra from 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, or will safety teams prowl around measuring stubble length and forcing men to shave their beards off!

Asbestos fibres - a single fibre is believed t...

Asbestos fibres – a single fibre is believed t..

A google search and quick review of the HSE documentation has no mention of ‘risk’, or even of deaths rates caused by poor fitting masks, which beggers the question of how can individuals make informed choice when no one has publicised the information? Modern smokers can assess the risks, because they know the numerical chances of the habit making them ill.

My final thought is for the men, and women, who suffered mesothelioma after asbestos exposure, for which there may be up to several thousand in western Scotland (BMJ, 1993). Risk management is great in hindsight, not so good as foresight. Even when health issues are highlighted, effective action to protect individuals can take years to put in place: the risks of smoking and asbestos were known decades before legislation was passed. This goes to show how badly we as a society have judged risk in the past, but also highlights that we shouldn’t be too complacent looking back, wondering why previous generations missed what seems to be obvious dangers and believing that we won’t make the same mistakes.

Right my 5 o’clock shadows beginning to show, I better go to the bathroom and ‘freshen up’ before I’m busted by the stubble stazi!


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