OSHA requirements are set by statute, standards and regulations. Our interpretation letters explain these requirements and how they apply to particular circumstances, but they cannot create additional employer obligations. This letter constitutes OSHA's interpretation of the requirements discussed. Note that our enforcement guidance may be affected by changes to OSHA rules. Also, from time to time we update our guidance in response to new information. To keep apprised of such developments, you can consult OSHA's website at http://www.osha.gov.

April 16, 1996

The Honorable Scott Klug
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515

Dear Congressman Klug:

Thank you for your letter of December 5, 1995, on behalf of your constituent, [Name withheld], who works at a job requiring respiratory protection. [Name withheld], who has a beard for religious reasons, is seeking clarification of the provision concerning beards at [29 CFR 1910.134(g)(1)(i)] in the Respiratory Protection Standard issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). He has asked whether OSHA has guidelines for beards and respirator fit testing under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. OSHA has issued no guidelines regarding this issue.

OSHA's respiratory protection standard requires employers to have a respiratory protection program in workplaces where respirators are required. The respiratory protection program must include minimum requirements, such as respirator selection, cleaning, maintenance, fitting, and workplace surveillance, among others. As part of the program, the employer must evaluate the workplace to determine the appropriate level of respiratory protection. The standard is performance oriented and allows the employer the flexibility to determine the level and type of respiratory protection required for employee protection.

OSHA does not specify in the respiratory protection standard the type of respirator that must be provided. Further, the standard does not require the employer to provide a specific respirator upon employee request. Certain substance specific standards such as the lead standard, 29 CFR 1910.1025, contain provisions that require employers to provide more protective respiratory protection when requested by an employee.

Although the respirator standard allows employers a choice of respirators, [29 CFR 1910.134(g)(1)(i)] states, "Respirators shall not be worn when conditions prevent a good face seal. Such conditions may be a growth of beard, sideburns, a skull cap that projects under the facepiece, or temple pieces on glasses."

(Correction 03/29/99)

[(1) Facepiece seal protection.

(i) The employer shall not permit respirators with tight-fitting facepieces to be worn by employees who have:
(A) Facial hair that comes between the sealing surface of the facepiece and the face or that interferes with valve function; or
(B) Any condition that interferes with the face-to-facepiece seal or valve function.]

This provision pertains to respirators providing a face to facepiece seal. If [Name withheld] employer has selected this type of respirator to protect him, then the employer must satisfy him or herself that a good face seal can be obtained. By its terms, the standard does not say that beard will always prevent a good face seal, but it is the general consensus of respirator experts that this is usually the case.

Because OSHA's standard does not necessarily require this type of respirator, the question whether the employer may select this type of respirator for use and prohibit employee beards is to be answered not by OSHA law or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 but by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Among other things, that provision prohibits discrimination based on "religion," which is defined as including "all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee's or prospective employee's religious observance or practice without under hardship on the conduct of the employer's business." 42 U.S.C. 2000e(j).

Because we do not enforce Title VII, we are not experts in that law and could not state whether that law would permit [Name withheld] employer to require him to shave his beard entirely, or to style his beard so no hair underlies the points where the facepiece of the respirator is intended to seal with his face, or, alternatively, whether the employer's duty to make reasonable accommodations would require the provision of a hood type respirator. The hood type respirator is either a powered air purifying respirator or a supplied air respirator. Both are considerably more expensive than the negative pressure air purifying respirator which relies on a face-to facepiece seal.

We appreciate the opportunity to assist you with this matter.

Sincerely,

Joseph A. Dear
Assistant Secretary