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Accommodation and the Case of Beard

Thanks to York employment law student Manav Karwal for pointing out an interesting human rights case from Alberta.   The employee is a Sikh.  When his employer, Syncrude Canada, ordered him to shave his beard, he informed the employer that he could not due to his religious beliefs.   The employer’s position was that the job required employees to wear a safety mask that would not fit over the beard.   The employee apparently presented the employer with a different mask and requested he be permitted to wear the mask as an accommodtion.  The employer refused.

The employee filed his human rights complaint in July 2003, and the case has still not be heard on its merits.  In a preliminary ruling, the Commission ruled that Syncrude is the ‘employer’ and therefore the complaint could be heard.  However, Cyncrude then appealed that preliminary ruling up the Court of Appeal, which recently ruled that the case needed to be decided on its merits before the employer can appeal the ruling.  O, brother.   The employer has so far managed to delay the hearing of the accommodation issue for 5 years!   Perhaps the employer is worried about broader implications flowing from the finding that it is an ‘employer’.  It is certainly clear that this case has so far likely cost the employer thousands of dollars to defend. 

The main issue of whether it is possible to accommodate a Sikh by allowing him to wear a different type of safety gear looks like it might finally be heard by the Commission.   If I were a betting person, I’d guess that the employer will not suffer undue hardship by allowing the employee to work with a different sort of mask.  Do you think the duty to accommodate should require the employer to allow an employee to work with no safety gear if the employee is prepared to accept the risk?


One Response to Accommodation and the Case of Beard

  1. Ryan Reply

    October 1, 2008 at 4:42 pm

    Depends on the circumstances. The threshold for undue hardship will be lower if the complainant bears the entire risk of his request, however the threshold will be higher if the complainant’s choice puts others at risk. In the case of something like a hard hat, it’s preventative and therefore not necessary to accomplish the tasks of one’s job. In the case of a safety mask (air filter mask?), it’s likely that the conditions of the job require it in order for tasks to be performed. In this way, not wearing the safety mask could put coworkers at risk, as they’re the ones who will inevitably be doing the rescuing.

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