Muslim Worker Not Discriminated Against, Says Sheriff's Office; OSHA Says Facial Hair and Masks Don't Mix

The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office denies that a Muslim detention officer was discriminated against because of his beard, citing Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules that require a clean shave with face masks.

The office's response runs counter to what is claimed in the lawsuit filed today by Bosnian immigrant Sinan Fazlovic (with the help of the ACLU). The lawsuit states:

The primary occupational safety agency in the country ("OSHA"), opined in 1998 that persons with beards could meet the standards for wearing a secure SCBA or equivalent device and work under smoke and fire conditions.

We called the state OSHA office to get verification of this. But Bruce Hanna, a state industrial hygienist, had the opposite opinion: "You're not supposed to have any facial hair" when wearing a self-contained breathing apparatus mask, he said.

Here's the full statement about the ACLU lawsuit from MCSO:

This lawsuit erroneously accuses the Maricopa Sheriff's Office of religious discrimination.

The lawsuit fails to acknowledge our responsibility to comply with state-adopted federal OSHA regulations governing the type of facemasks authorized for use in jail emergency situations where life and health for officers and inmates are at risk.

This Sheriff's Office is committed to providing a safe environment for employees and inmates. We comply with Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health as it sets the standards for the safe use of this equipment as it pertains to facial hair and its potential to compromise the effectiveness of safety equipment.

Gerard Sheridan Chief of Custody Maricopa County Sheriff's Office

Now, it's possible that Fazlovic's other claims may be valid, such as the way he was treated by the sheriff's office. But the issue of the face mask is not really in question, says Hanna. He pointed us to an OSHA directive which states facial hair should not come "between the sealing surface of the facepiece and the face..."

In fact, he says, the state OSHA worked with the sheriff's office recently in testing two other Muslim workers at the jail who wanted to keep their beards. The two passed a seal test only after trimming their beards every closely, Hanna says.

The Phoenix Fire Department also mandates clean-shaven faces in positions that require occasional use of a breathing mask, says the department's spokesman, Deputy Chief Frank Salomon.

"We do not allow anybody with a beard to work in operations," Salomon tells us. "The hair will bust that seal."

Skin and a light layer of sweat is needed to get a tight seal on the masks, which prevent toxic gases from being inhaled by firefighters. Safety is more important than style, and even handlebar moustaches and thick sideburns are verboten, he says.

If the need for a beard was for religious -- rather than simply personal -- purposes, the department's human resources department would get involved, Salomon says.

The problem would likely be handled on a case-by-case basis, he says.

With religious freedom at stake, nothing is -- shall we say -- clear cut.

In a 2005 case of a Muslim firefighter that was also litigated by the ALCU, a judge ruled that a Pennsylvania fire department had the right to prohibit facial hair.

However, just this past March, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of Muslim firefighters from Washington D.C. who wanted to grow beards.

If former jail guard Fazlovic gets lucky, he may end up with a favorable court decision, too -- but it may take awhile. The D.C. firefighters began their legal battle in 2001.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.