The Ottawa Hospital was attempting to fix a problem that didn’t exist when it unilaterally imposed a new dress code on employees according to a recent arbitration decision.
Most contentious was a requirement that workers at the hospital cover up large tattoos as well as prohibiting “visible, excessive body piercings.”
The Ottawa Hospital also stopped certain workers from wearing jeans and Bermuda shorts and insisted nurses wear lab coats in the hospital while off duty.
All of these restrictions were struck down in the January 14th decision following a 2010 policy grievance by CUPE Local 4000.
Arbitrator Lorne Slotnick stated in his ruling: “the employer’s argument is explicitly based on its willingness to accept and acquiesce to patients’ perceived prejudices and stereotypes about tattoos and piercings, even as it offers no evidence that these have any impact on health outcomes… The hospital could not and would not accede to the wishes of a patient who might be uncomfortable with a care provider based on the employee’s race or ethnic identity, even though some patients might harbour those types of prejudices.”
Slotnick said that no patient was being forced to “accept” tattoos, but instead were receiving care from many individuals who reflected the diversity expected in a big city.
Evidence introduced by the hospital relied on a survey conducted in a rural U.S. hospital where patients were shown photographs of hospital workers with and without tattoos and asked a series of questions about their perceptions of the professionalism of such workers. Surprisingly, there was little difference in perception, making one wonder why this was ever introduced as evidence by the hospital in an arbitration that dragged on for the better part of two years.
The hospital similarly tried to introduce one of the architects of the policy as an independent expert witness. This is despite the fact that her “expert” research never looked at the effect of a health care provider’s appearance or dress on the patient’s stress or health outcomes according to Slotnick.
The arbitrator compared the case to one in 1972 when sideburns were considered to be unprofessional for Scarborough firefighters, suggesting the hospital may be similarly a little behind the times.
“Anyone who has taken a stroll on a summer day knows that tattoos are no longer confined to sailors, stevedores and strippers,” he writes.
The hospital reported they had only two complaints over the last decade with regards to staff tattoos – the most recent in 2007.
Staff members expressed concerned that long sleeves intended to cover up tattoos made it more difficult to maintain infection control, especially when they were frequently required to wash their hands.
However, the arbitrator noted that there was no conclusive evidence that short or long sleeves made any difference.
The rest of the new rules around appearance were struck down on the basis that they didn’t meet the test of being reasonable, they be clear and unequivocal, or that they be consistently enforced. Many of the witnesses made it clear that application of the new dress code rules were being very unevenly applied.
The arbitrator could find no reason why, when these conditions previously prevailed, that the hospital suddenly found the need to introduce such new policies in 2010.
“This employer is seeking to exempt itself entirely from the requirement of reasonableness simply because it is a hospital,” the arbitrator writes.
A similar policy around covering up tattoos worn by Ontario Provincial Police was also recently struck down.