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Championing equality in construction: Hira Singh

The construction industry should be celebrated as a trailblazer in championing equality

The matter of equality is undoubtedly a hot debate within the construction sector, but rather than focus on what needs to change, I’d like to draw attention to, and indeed celebrate, what our forward-thinking industry has already accomplished in the name of equality.

Let me put this into context; six months ago we marked 100 years since WW1 began and we as a nation commemorated the lives that were lost during that war and others that have taken place since. As a British Sikh, I am extremely proud of the bravery our comrades demonstrated during these wars. In fact, Sikhs were recruited heavily during WW1 and formed part of the British Indian Army that played an essential role in many battlefields throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

Whilst it is important for us to celebrate those lives affected by war, the Sikh involvement does hold a distinct correlation to equality in the construction industry today. During WW1, British authorities requested Sikhs wear helmets instead of turbans. However, Sikhs insisted on wearing turbans as they form part of their religious identity. After two World Wars, more than 80,000 Sikhs laying their lives for the crown and a further 100,000 injured, the importance of the turban was embraced by Britain and widely accepted.

So how does this link to equality in the construction industry? The 1989 Employment Act states that all those on a construction site must wear a safety helmet. However, having to swap my turban for a safety helmet would compromise the religious symbolism that I hold dear. But, rather than this being a major consideration or compromise, the industry has embraced and indeed sanctioned the right to wear a turban on site.

For the past 25 years, our industry has ruled by law – as Section 11 of the Employment Act – that turban-wearing Sikhs are able to undertake work on a construction site without wearing a safety helmet. Construction companies strictly follow health and safety regulations and risk assessments and the likelihood of head injuries are either eliminated or vastly reduced if wearing a turban. In the event of an unfortunate head injury, Section 11 provides guidelines, which limit the liability to injuries for Sikhs that would have occurred had a safety helmet been worn.

Our industry was the first to value the significance of this religious symbol and advocate the wearing of a turban, as opposed to a safety helmet, and whilst this may not be a new and innovative legislation, it is significant. Were it not for the value the British people place on equality and human rights, it would be difficult for the many Sikhs currently working in the sector to conduct their work with the level of equality they are able to today.

This year this legislation is likely to be extended – paving the way for Sikhs to wear turbans in other industries too. I am proud to say that the construction industry was the first to adapt to Sikhs’ religious needs in such a manner – setting a fine example for other industries and demonstrating our sector’s appetite to champion equality in every shape and form. 

Hira Singh is a graduate engineer at Bachy Soletanche

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