27 May 2022 16:34
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Discriminatory Rule: Sikh medical students forced to shave in order to pass the face mask fit test or defer the year in Victoria

The rule is very clear that a medical practitioner "must meet OH&S requirements but religious exemptions should also apply.

A medical student Mr Singh (He doesn’t want to be identified), based in Melbourne recently took to Twitter to raise an important issue regarding the use of Tight-fitting respirator face masks.

Tight-fitting respirator face masks such as N95 or filtering facepiece (FFP3) masks are essential respiratory protective equipment during aerosol-generating procedures in the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) environment. 

We have removed Mr Singh’s tweet as per his request.

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According to Emma Andollie, an Occupational Health and Safety nurse, international standards, Australian standards and respirator manufacturers all require people to be clean-shaven when wearing a respirator.

As the function of a close-fitting respirator relies on an effective seal to the skin there should be no foreign substance or facial hair between mask and skin when testing.

However, Prof Brett Sutton who is the Victorian Chief Health Officer responding to his query clarified that “There are no pandemic orders that require you to shave or cut your beard to wear a mask.”

The rule is very clear that a medical practitioner “must meet OH&S requirements but religious exemptions also apply.”

Individuals unable to shave due to personal or religious reasons such as Sikhs are often recommended to use alternatives such as powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs). 

Nitin Arora, Digital Editor of JICS, and Dr Christian Karcher, University of Melbourne, also pointed to the “use the Drager 8000 PAPR hood” and “3M Versaflo systems” by bearded medical practitioners.

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Such types of equipment are also being used by some Sikh medical practitioners in the UK during the pandemic.

However, researchers note that such “alternatives are expensive, limited in supply, and cumbersome to use.”

He is confident that as a medical student during such unprecedented times he has a “reasonable, safe, evidence-based solution, and there is space for equal opportunity to be upheld.”

Researchers of a scientific study conducted in 2020 note that there is “no evidence in the literature to suggest why, instead of shaving, the facial hair-factor cannot be overcome with an under-mask beard cover.”

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Image source: Elastic rubber band beard cover worn over turban and head cloth. “Under-mask beard cover (Singh Thattha technique) for donning respirator masks in COVID-19 patient care” 2020.
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Image source: FFP3 and Stealth face masks donned with the beard undercover in place. “Under-mask beard cover (Singh Thattha technique) for donning respirator masks in COVID-19 patient care” 2020.

They add that using the Singh Thattha technique obtains a pass rate of 25/27 (92.6%) by qualitative and 5/5 (100%) by quantitative fit test in full-bearded individuals. 

The authors of this study also note that “for individuals for whom shaving is not possible, the Singh Thattha technique could offer an effective solution to safely don respirator masks.”

3M Versaflo systems; Image source: 3M Versaflo systems - Twitter.
Image: 3M Versaflo systems; Image source: 3M Versaflo systems – Twitter.

Now, the question is does Mr Singh’s predicament sound like religious discrimination or an essential feature that saves the medical practitioner from harm?

As similar stories have come forward from Queensland where male Sikh nursing students are finding it hard to gain placement unless they either cut beard for clean shaven look or defer for next year.

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Image source: Facebook group post screenshot.
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