OHS Canada Magazine

Tattoos in triage and ink in intensive OK’d at Ottawa hospital

January 28, 2013

Health & Safety Human Resources

OTTAWA (Canadian OH&S News)

OTTAWA (Canadian OH&S News)

Healthcare staff in an Ottawa hospital have been given the all-clear to proudly show off their ink.

Tattoos will no longer be taboo for staff at The Ottawa Hospital after an arbitrator threw out a dress-code regulation which required body ink and piercings to be covered up.

In his decision on Jan. 14, arbitrator Lorne Slotnick deemed the hospital, in the east end of the city, had implemented an “unreasonable” policy requiring workers to keep tattoos and excessive piercings hidden from the hospital’s more than 45,000 patients per year.

The hospital maintained that visible tattoos and piercings conflicted with its policy to uphold health and sanitation codes for its patients and maintain a professional appearance and attire, but Local 4000 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents the workers, had argued that the policy infringed upon the staff’s right to express themselves.


While the hospital has always upheld a mandate for professional attire in the workplace, as outlined in their code of conduct, the dress code problem snowballed in March of 2011, when the hospital tightened their uniform rules.

“The core of what the arbitrator said, and what the arbitral jurisprudence says in this area is that the employer is certainly allowed to dictate what people can wear, they just have to have some reason for doing it. It can’t just be completely plucked out of the air based on management’s perception of what they think is proper attire,” explained Ben Piper, one of the lawyers who represented the local union chapter in the arbitration.

He added that many union members were concerned about inconsistent application of the policy amongst the more than 12,000 staff members at the hospital, and many had testified that doctors and medical students weren’t being held to the same standard as “blue collar” staff.

According to Slotnick’s decision, The Ottawa Hospital initially tweaked the dress code policy based on the fact that they wanted to provide their patients and clients with a healthy, sanitary and safe environment. That included common requirements such as avoiding dangling earrings and tying back long hair when working with patients, and covering up when exposed to bodily fluids.

“The hospital regards the issue as a matter of professionalism, arguing that at least some patients are put off by healthcare providers sporting tattoos and piercings, and that if the hospital can save any patient some anxiety by requiring employees to cover tattoos and remove piercings, that is a small sacrifice for the employee,” the arbitrator noted in their decision.

However, the workers felt that there was no need to cover up tattoos or piercings since there was no evidence to support that their appearance affected the well-being of their patients — something Piper said resulted in staff feeling ostracized. The arbitrator ruled on similar grounds.

“Offensive or profane” tattoos must still be covered

Both sides did agree that offensive or profane body ink would not uphold a professional atmosphere, the decision’s report continued.

“During the hearing, the union also stated that it had no issue with the hospital requiring a cover-up of a hateful, profane, or otherwise offensive tattoo, such as a Charles Manson-style forehead swastika tattoo,” Slotnick illustrated in his decision.

Another point of contention Slotnick resolved was that nurses no longer need to wear their lab coats when off-duty. Previous policies required nurses to don their lab coats when they were off duty; according to the hospital, patients would recognize nurses throughout the building — which the staff felt was unreasonable.



Stories continue below