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Hard hat mandate doesn't allow Pa. Amish to bend rules

Brian Bowling
| Monday, April 6, 2015, 11:24 p.m.

Federal regulators are willing to bend on a safety requirement involving hard hats but not far enough for a Clearfield County company to keep its Old Order Amish employees in its sandstone quarries, the owner of the company said Monday.

“They came back and gave a ruling that we have to wear hard hats,” said Dan Russell of Russell Stone Products in Grampian.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration wrote in a letter that it would not require Amish to wear hard hats in areas of the quarry where there's minimal hazard of falling objects.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has exempted Old Order Amish — whose religious beliefs generally require them to wear plain, wide-brimmed hats — from donning hard hats in construction sites and other industrial settings since 1978.

MSHA doesn't provide a similar exemption for workers in mines and quarries. If the agency did, he could hire more Amish workers and expand his operation, Russell said.

While he hoped for a different answer, he doesn't fault the agency for its decision and doesn't plan to push the issue, he said.

Refusing to wear hard hats might seem odd, but the question of headgear isn't a fad or an option for Old Order Amish, said Donald Kraybill, a senior fellow at Elizabethtown College's Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies and the author of several books about the Amish.

“They view their dress as an expression of their Christian faith,” he said.

The 300,000 members of the Old Order Amish in 31 states and Ontario are divided into about 40 subgroups. Though the styles of their hats can vary, all of them require men — and many require boys — to wear them, he said.

The principle behind the hat and other clothing is to refuse to conform to worldly dress and practices, Kraybill said.

“It's not a matter of personal preference or even tradition,” he said. “For them, it has religious mandate and religious meaning.”

Russell asked U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Centre County, to find out why it's OK for Amish to work without a hard hat when a crane is holding an I-beam above their heads but not when rocks might fall on them.

“That's just the part I don't totally agree with,” he said.

Thompson sent Labor Secretary Thomas Perez a letter in August asking that question. He didn't receive a reply.

During a March 18 budget hearing, he asked the secretary again. Perez apologized and said he would have an answer within a week.

“I heard back from the secretary within four days,” Thompson said Monday.

While he can understand the concern about hard hats in deep mines, Thompson's less certain why a surface operation such as a quarry would be more hazardous than a construction site, he said.

And though he's unhappy with the agency's delay in responding to the initial question, he's satisfied with the agency's response.

“I respect the challenge of this,” Thompson said.

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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