Hard hat policy at B.C. sawmill draws hard response from Sikhs

Sikh workers file human rights complaint after employer demands they wear hard hats instead of or over turbans

Two Sikh workers in British Columbia are complaining their employer’s hard hat policy violates their human rights.

Mander Singh Sohal was a forklift operator at an International Forest Products (Interfor) sawmill in Surrey-Delta, B.C., for 20 years. Despite provincial laws requiring helmets in workplaces with the potential for head injury, Interfor allowed its sawmill workers to decide for themselves where and when to wear protective headgear. Sohal and his Sikh co-worker Kalwant Sahota wore only their turbans on their heads at work.

However, the combination of head injuries to six Interfor workers in 2007 and a government report on worker safety led the company to adopt a more stringent stance on protective headgear in the workplace. Despite some unhappiness with the policy, most of Interfor’s 20 Sikh workers at the sawmill altered hard hats to fit on top of their turbans.

Sohal and Sahota — who was on sick leave — refused to follow the policy, saying wearing the headgear instead of or over their turbans violated their religious beliefs. When he refused to wear a hard hat, Sohal was escorted out of the sawmill and suspended without pay. The two men filed a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Commission, claiming discrimination based on religious grounds.

Interfor responded by offering to reinstate Sohal to another position that doesn’t require protective headgear at the same salary with back pay. Sahota will also have a new position when he is able to return to work.

However, Sohal’s lawyer, David Perry, told reporters he was concerned the new position would limit his client’s chances for advancement in the company. Also, there are few positions that don’t require hard hats, so the two workers are concerned Interfor’s proposal would only apply to them and not all Sikhs at Interfor’s sawmills.

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