- Since the onset of COVID-19, many Sikh health professionals have expressed fear of ‘indirect discrimination’ over evolving mask rules
- NSW and WA have approved alternative method for Sikh professionals to wear masks while keeping their beards intact
- In Victoria, Royal Melbourne Hospital is conducting a clinical trial to find a safe solution, but results would need to be approved by WorkSafe Victoria first
- Any bearded healthcare worker who cannot shave for religious, cultural or medical reasons can book in for the trial
Caught between their faith and their workplace requirements, many Sikh healthcare workers and students across Victorian hospital settings have been unable to proceed with their clinical practices or placements since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A bearded medical student who requested to be known only as Mr Singh* is facing a dilemma that threatens his very identity.
Like many other Sikh health professionals and nursing students from across Australia, he was told to get “clean-shaven” to meet mask fit requirements.
“I have unfortunately been barred from continuing my studies and there is currently no guarantee that there will be any changes next year or any time in the future," he tells SBS Punjabi.
Mr Singh says he submitted a complaint to the Ombudsman only to receive a reply that the issue lies with his institution, not the Department of Health.
“Under the current system, Sikh healthcare workers like myself will not be able to work in a hospital setting if fit testing remains long-term without any accommodations made,” Mr Singh says.
There needs to be more swift action by the Department of Health and WorkSafe. If other states can, why can’t Victoria?
NSW, WA and SA have all given the green light to the new Singh Thattha technique, which involves using an under-mask elastic band beard cover for donning respirator masks.
However, this technique is not currently endorsed by WorkSafe Victoria for use in passing fit-test protocols.
Royal Melbourne Hospital trials are underway
The affected professionals, students and Sikh bodies have been advocating for a more unified solution across Australia for quite a while now.
Seeking to find a solution, Royal Melbourne Hospital is conducting a 12-month trial into the efficacy of the Singh Thattha technique.
The results would need to be approved by WorkSafe Victoria before any alternative could be provided.
Charles Bodas from the hospital’s Respiratory Protection Program told SBS Punjabi that the trials are open to Victorian healthcare workers and students who cannot shave for religious, cultural or medical reasons and require a N95/P2 respirator for respiratory protection or source control.
"This is not limited to hospital doctors and nurses," says Mr Bodas.
We wish to include a wide range of healthcare workers including allied health such as physiotherapy, dentistry and podiatry.
According to Mr Bodas, they intend to publish their initial assessments and repeat assessments at three and 12 months.
"There will be three participant assessments during the 12-month period of the trial. Each assessment looks at three key elements: respiratory protection (quantitative fit testing), the skill of the user when donning and doffing the elastic band and respirator; and usability of the technique surveying such things as ease of use, communication and heat comfort,” he says.
“WorkSafe Victoria has visited Royal Melbourne Hospital and observed our fit testing using the under-respirator elastic band beard cover.”
"WorkSafe has also reviewed our research protocol documentation and our risk mitigation processes for those who are participating in our trial and deployed clinically," he says.
"We have been liaising with the Australian Sikh Doctors Association, as well as other religious groups and healthcare organisations, and is open to assistance in promoting the study to relevant groups.”
Medical staff walk past the emergency entrance at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. Source: AFP
‘Please come forward’
Mr Bodas explains that so far the program has 21 participants, but ideally they want to at least double this number.
Medical student Mr Singh, who is participating in the clinical trial, says that if the trial is successful it will create more acceptance in the wider community and facilitate religious freedom.
“This may mandate all hospitals and placement sites to accept people who have passed using the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s findings if the trial is successful,” he says.
“I’d appeal to any healthcare worker who must keep their beard for cultural reasons to please make contact and book in for a fit test. There have been very positive results so far.”
“Beyond the impact on individuals like myself, I am concerned that this issue not only impacts Sikh healthcare workers but also a significant number of Muslim and Jewish individuals too,” he adds.
Mr Singh says the long-term aim is to prove this method via evidence; however, the 12-month length of the study means many people in his position are unlikely to be able continue their course or return to work until a much later date.
Jang Singh Pannu is the secretary of Victorian Sikh Gurdwaras Council. Source: Supplied by Mr Pannu.
Hoping for a uniform policy Australia-wide
The Victorian Sikh Gurudwara Council (VSGC) raised the concern with Victorian Premier Dan Andrews on 16 April during his Keysborough Gurudwara visit.
Speaking to SBS Punjabi, VSGC Secretary Jang Pannu says, “We tried to push the matter with the premier, raising the idea of allowing the NSW technique to be used in Victoria, as was done in Western Australia. There is clear evidence behind it.
“The premier forwarded our request to Hon Ros Spence [Minister for Multicultural Affairs], which the Department of Health then followed.”
Mr Pannu says they are rigorously following up on this and is appealing to people to come forward for the trials.
“Sikh medical professionals who can’t shave off their beards cannot wear N95 masks which require a good seal around the nose and mouth,” he says.
“The purpose of fit testing is to verify which selected makes, models and sizes of close-fitting respiratory protective equipment, including N95 masks, adequately fit the wearer.
“There is no question that fit testing is important in the prevention of hospital infections,” he says.
“But diversity in healthcare workers is essential in delivering equitable healthcare for people of all backgrounds, religions and cultures.”
In February, NSW Health approved a new way for Sikh healthcare workers to wear masks over their facial hair.
The North Shore Sikh Association (NSSA) worked with the Clinical Excellence Commission (CEC), a government body, to develop a method of tying an elastic band on top of a beard, where the mask seals strongly and doesn’t slip.
The ministerial approval followed months of independent testing and data collection.
“We hope the state governments come up with an umbrella policy that covers all healthcare professionals with specific cultural and religious needs,” says Mr Pannu.
Employers and educational institutions can discuss this trial with Professor Daryl Williams at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, Daryl.Williams@mh.org.au or firstname.lastname@example.org.