Monday, September 21, 2009

Here We Go Again

Another faith in the workplace controversy involving a West Country nurse, this time one in Exeter whose health trust asked her to stop wearing a crucifix on health and safety grounds. She's been wearing it for 30 years, without injury to patients, but the trust policy is 'no necklaces', so she's been taken off front line duties until she complies.

The Trust statement is here - it appears the policy was adopted 18 months ago, and it seems the nurse was only informed of it in June this year. Obviously not that crucial a policy then..... It does seem a little odd, given that there are plenty of other things patients can grab (stethoscopes, security tags, watches). It would be interesting to know what led to the review of policy in the first place, but it clearly wasn't this particular nurse or else this story would have happened in April 2008.

The Christian Legal Centre, who have taken up the case, point out that there's not one recorded incident of anyone in the NHS suffering injury from a necklace. The CLC has a fuller version of the story, including quotes from the nurse herself, and links to media reports. The Telegraphs story points out that other trusts are perfectly happy with the wearing of religious symbols, as a sign of diversity. The CLC are arguing that a secularist agenda is behind the policy/this particular application of it, but I'm not really sure that we need that level of rhetoric to get this sorted out sensibly.

It's certainly very easy to hide one agenda behind another: secularism behind health and safety, or refusing to publicise church events in a library/renaming Christmas, because you 'don't want to offend people of other faiths', who wouldn't have been offended anyway. There is a track record here, so the CLC may be wrong, but it's not unreasonable to be suspicious.

One of the issues is whether certain things are 'required' by a religion, or are just an expression of faith. Having said that, wearing a wedding ring isn't 'required' but if anyone asked me to remove mine then they'd have to have a pretty good reason, because of what it symbolises.

And given my recent experience in the NHS (more later this week), there are much more important things for NHS managers to be doing than faffing about with jewellery.

Other coverage and comments:
- Tabloid watch notes how stories like this fit a running 'political correctness' narrative in certain sections of the press.
- the Journal of Medical Ethics blog thinks the Trust is in the right, and that 'a hospital is a secular institution' - which doesn't entirely square with the presence of chaplaincies and prayer rooms, it's not quite that simple is it?
- best piece discovered so far is One Minions Opinion.
and lots of strange 'Britain is being turned into a Muslim country by political correctness' sites.


  1. Whoa. Thanks a lot for the plug!

    I never thought to consider in my post, though, if her suddenly being told about this policy has anything to do with how Christian she is. If she's annoying her colleagues with it, or an added pain for patients, as examples. If she's being pushed out because she's too aggressively Christian, then that might be grounds for getting lawyers involved.

  2. You're welcome. I doubt she's suddenly become annoying, if she's been wearing the thing for 30 years. I must admit that if I'd been doing something at work for 30 years which didn't harm anyone, then suddenly got told I couldn't do it on 'health and safety' grounds, I'd be pretty sniffy about it too. Whether it's just a heavy-handed Trust, or a secularist agenda, is pretty hard to tell from outside the situation.

  3. Regardless of the secular/religious debate around this, the rules should be clear. Either allow any adornments or allow none. I suspect since an "allow any" policy would open the flood gates to all kinds of silliness, then the allow none is the only practical choice; but why the NHS can't be clear about it baffles me.

    As for offending people, why should anyone have the right not to be offended? Threatened, abused, intimidated, slandered all fair enough but "offended", on yer bike!

    As someone who is very keen on secularism it wouldn't worry me in the slightest what symbols someone might be wearing (within obvious reason), it might even spark an interesting conversation!

  4. Morning, David -
    You've missed the point. You say that
    "The Telegraphs [sic] story points out that other trusts are perfectly happy with the wearing of religious symbols, as a sign of diversity"
    and thereby give the impression that Devon and Exeter is not happy with the wearing of such symbols - but nothing they've said supports this. The original BBC story ( quoted them as saying that a lapel badge or something like that would be perfectly acceptable. So it's not an anti-religion thing: it's an anti-necklace thing; you're misrepresenting the case.

    Now - you've thrown down the gauntlet in respect of the Chaplaincy issue. I don't know whether Chaplaincies are funded by the NHS or by religious institutions. If the latter, and if they pay rent to use the hospital's facilities, then fine. But I'll bite the bullet: the NHS shouldn't be spending money on that kind of thing. There're more pressing needs.

  5. Thanks Iain - I'll stand half-corrected, the Trust statement on their website says that a lapel badge wouldn't comply with the policy either. I really can't see how that's a risk to anyone. However, if something was worn 'inside' the lapel or uniform - i.e out of sight - then that would be ok. Strange.

    Makes me wonder if engagement rings are covered by the same policy, as they would carry the same risks as a lapel pin.

  6. Hi David, I think I can help you out there. The problem with jewellery is that they produce a risk of cross infection. Nurse touches a patient, touches her necklace, washes her hands, necklace still harbours nasty germs to pass on to the next patient.

    If the necklace is worn inside the uniform then it doesn't get touched during work and is therefore safe.

    Engagement rings, any sort of ring, bracelet or wrist watch is also counted, as are acrylic nails as they are an infection risk. You might have noticed on your visit to YDH that all nurses were bare below the elbow to prevent cross-infection.

    Fob watches are a problem, as they present a risk of cross infection but are necessary for the job. Now lots of nurses wear brightly coloured rubber settings for their fob watches so that you can hold it by the rubber and then take that off and wash the rubber without damaging the watch.

    The reason why these stories are more common now is that following the outcry over MRSA, the public demanded that hospitals act on all potential sources of infection. Should a nurse's freedom to cross a crucifix outside her uniform trump a slight chance that a patient gets a hospital acquired infection? I would side with the patient on that one and I think most people would.

  7. Ha! You're right about a lapel pin having to be inside... odd indeed.

    It's not true that an engagement ring'd carry the same risk, though: make a grab for a necklace or a pin and you could potentially do some damage. Making a grab for a ring, though - well, I'm not even sure that that's possible. It's certainly hard to distinguish between going for a ring and going for a hand.

    (Of course, someone might go to grab your lapel; but the chances are that they wouldn't get purchace - or perhaps that's a reason to design a uniform without a lapel. Nehru jackets all round!)

  8. Andy - that sounds sensible, though the impression I get from the Exeter stuff is that the issue is 'health and safety' , that a patient might grab the necklace, rather than that it might spread infection.

    Iain - the only engagement ring I have much experience of is the one I bought, and it has a couple of sharp edges to it, which can raise a scratch if caught at the wrong angle.

    Anyone wearing a ring would need to beware of patients bearing a resemblance to Gollum and crooning 'my precioussss' to themselves.