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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Hard hat policy spurs debate between safety and religion

wo British Columbia workers at the centre of a clash between workplace safety and religion are close to reaching a compromise with their employer — International Forest Products Ltd (Interfor) — reports the lawyer for the two men.

Since early last November, Sikh sawmill workers Mander Singh Sohal and Kalwant Singh Sahota have not been permitted to work at Interfor's Acorn Mill in Delta because they refused to wear hard hats over their turbans. For many Sikhs, it is considered a religious requirement to not cover their turbans.

Before November, Interfor's policy on hard hats and other safety gear was more relaxed and did not require all employees at its sawmills to wear such equipment, says Ric Slaco, chief forester and vice-president of Interfor. The new policy requires all sawmill workers to wear the protective equipment.

By filing a complaint with the BC Human Rights Tribunal on March 9 against Interfor, Sohal and Sahota are looking to earn exemptions to the hard hat rule.

David Perry, the lawyer for the two workers, notes that Interfor originally had until April 9 to respond to the complaint, but that deadline was extended because of ongoing negotiations with the company. He says he is "very optimistic" the matter will be resolved and that a tribunal hearing will be avoided. The two sides are currently putting the final touches on a compromise, he says.

The fact that negotiations are underway is a "positive sign," Slaco adds.

With the proposed deal, Interfor has offered alternative work to Sohal, at the same rate of pay, that will not require him to wear a hard hat, Perry says, noting that Sahota has been away from work on leave for an unrelated matter. Issues around back pay and possible damages for pain and suffering are also being discussed, he adds.
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