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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.
August 5, 2011
Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund
1413 K Street, 5th Floor
Washington, DC 20005
Thank you for meeting with us on March 15, 2011, to discuss clarification on exemptions from OSHA's Respiratory Protection Standard, 29 CFR 1910.134, due to the Sikh religious ban on removing facial hair.
As we discussed in the meeting, OSHA has no specific exemption from citations for employers whose workers, for reasons of personal religious convictions, object to wearing respirators in the workplace. The relevant federal statute dealing with the accommodation of religious practices by the Federal Government is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). It prohibits the Federal Government from substantially burdening a person's exercise of religion unless the Government "...demonstrates that application of the burden to the person-(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest." 42 U.S.C. 2000bb-1(a) and (b).
The RFRA is reflected in OSHA directive STD 01-06-005, Exemption for Religious Reason from Wearing Hard Hats. That directive "exempt[s] from citations employers of employees who, for reasons of personal religious convictions, object to wearing hard hats in the workplace." The directive makes clear, however, that there may be circumstances "that would involve a hard hat hazard sufficiently grave to raise a compelling governmental interest for requiring the wearing of hard hats, notwithstanding employee personal religious convictions." The directive also explains that employers may be cited for failing to instruct the workers exempted from wearing hard hats about the hazards hard hats address.
The situation for respirators is not identical to that for hard hats, however. As discussed below, the need for a respirator exemption is not as great, and the government's interest in protecting workers from the hazards that respirators address is more compelling. There are loose-fitting respirators available that can be used effectively by bearded workers in the majority of situations where respirators are required. Because of the availability of this alternative, there is no need for a general exemption from the requirement to use respirators.
Nevertheless, there are circumstances where a tight-fitting respirator must be worn, such as when a worker is exposed to an atmosphere that is immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH), defined as "...an atmosphere that poses an immediate threat to life, would cause irreversible adverse health effects, or would impair an individual's ability to escape from a dangerous atmosphere." 29 CFR 1910.134(b). In these situations, a tight-fitting pressure demand respirator is required. Wearing a respirator that is less protective could pose a grave danger not only to the worker who is wearing it, but also to other workers who might be called on to rescue him from the IDLH atmosphere. Preventing these unnecessary risks is a compelling governmental interest that justifies OSHA's decision not to provide a religious exemption from the respirator standard, especially as there is no less restrictive way to provide this protection.
You also ask whether workers could pay for the excess cost of powered air purifying respirators (PAPRs) in those situations where they provide adequate protection. OSHA standards, including the Respiratory Protection Standard, generally require employers to pay for required personal protective equipment (PPE). The Respiratory Protection Standard also requires employers to "select and provide an appropriate respirator based on the respiratory hazard(s) to which the worker is exposed and workplace and user factors that affect respirator performance and reliability." 29 CFR 1910.134(d)(1). However, OSHA's general PPE standard would permit an employer to allow the use of worker-owned PPE, provided it meets the minimum requirements for the protection level required by the standard. 29 CFR 1910.132(h)(6). An employer that allows such use, however, still must assure the adequacy of the PPE, "including proper maintenance and sanitation." 29 CFR 1910.132(b).
We hope you find this information helpful and we understand your interest in this issue. OSHA requirements are set by statute, standards, and regulations, and our interpretation letters explain these requirements and how they apply to particular circumstances. Also, from time to time we update our guidance in response to new information. To keep apprised of such developments, you can continue to consult OSHA's website at http://www.osha.gov. If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact the OSHA Office of Health Enforcement at (202) 693-2190.
Thomas Galassi, Director
Directorate of Enforcement Programs