Washington Update

Washington Update: Religious freedom and safety: ‘A difficult issue’

Employers have a legal mandate to keep their workers safe and a duty to respect workers’ religious beliefs. So what happens when those obligations come into conflict?

In a recent case, the Mine Safety and Health Administration told the owner of a central Pennsylvania surface mine that Amish workers had to wear hard hats when required by agency rules, despite those workers’ having religious objections to wearing hard hats.

The mine owner felt this conflicted with the hard-hat exemptions OSHA offers for religious beliefs, so he contacted his local congressman, Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-PA).

“The Department of Labor was sending mixed messages,” the congressman said in an interview with Safety+Health. Thompson raised the issue during a March 18 House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing with Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, suggesting to the secretary that “one hand isn’t talking to the other.”

The safety and religion issues in the surface mine case offer two compelling and competing considerations, Perez said at the hearing. While he said he greatly respects people’s religious freedoms, the secretary also stressed that “safety is a pretty big thing.”

Four days after Thompson requested that Perez look into the matter, MSHA chief Joseph A. Main responded by explaining that, essentially, mining is too dangerous for workers to not wear hard hats, which provide“critical protections.”

A hard-hat requirement likely would place a “substantial burden” on the Amish workers’ beliefs, and they could lose their jobs if they don’t comply with the rule, according to Sara Rose, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

This isn’t the first time the issue of religion and safety has come up. In the past, the courts have upheld the government’s right to require followers of the Amish faith to comply with certain traffic safety laws. Safety doesn’t always win out, though. In more recent cases, courts have ruled that employers can’t force men to shave their beards if doing so is against their religious beliefs, even if a clean-shaven face is necessary to form a tight seal on a respirator.

Rose, who was not involved in the mine case, told S+H that in the event a government policy, regulation or law places a substantial burden on a sincerely held religious belief, the government must show it has a compelling interest to enforce the law.

The government’s interest in this case is likely compelling enough, she said, and the Amish workers would probably lose any legal challenge.

“Wearing hard hats in a mine – from a commonsense standpoint – seems to be pretty compelling,” Rose said.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean the Amish workers at the Pennsylvania surface mine will lose their jobs, nor does it mean they have to violate their faith. Employers must accommodate workers’ religious beliefs when possible, according to Rose, including transferring those employees to another environment where faith and the law don’t conflict.

In MSHA’s letter to Thompson, Main explained that many surface mines are able to accommodate their workers’ religious beliefs by putting employees in locations clear of falling objects. In such an environment, hard hats would not be mandated.

Regarding the alleged contradiction within DOL on MSHA and OSHA rules, Main said that although OSHA provides a general exemption for religious beliefs, that agency’s directive recognizes some circumstances may exist with hazards so grave that hard hats should be required – regardless of religious conviction.

Thompson still sees a slight discrepancy within DOL concerning hard hats, but he said Main’s letter helps clarify the issue. And, he acknowledged, making sure employers’ legal requirements regarding occupational safety interact well with workers’ religious beliefs is not always easy.

“It’s a difficult issue,” Thompson said. “I was satisfied with [the agency’s] responsiveness, and the resolution that was provided.”

The opinions expressed in “Washington Update” do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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