Fix My Job: Working Conditions

When you gotta go, you gotta go.

This golden rule of biology, unfortunately, is not always observed by the small-minded managers who run many American workplaces. You’d think that access to a bathroom, and to a place to grab a sustaining bite during a long day, would be a no-brainer.

Unfortunately, that’s just not the case; Even if a company has working toilets, it doesn’t always let its employees use them. Security guards, warehouse, assembly-line, and call center workers and many others face severe limits on bathroom access: locked doors, long lines during approved breaks, and outright denial, like in the case  of one poultry processing plant in Kentucky where workers were told to “carry a cup with you” to the work line.

If you’re routinely denied access to lunch-break facilities, you know how bad it can get: The results are hungry, stressed-out, and less productive workers. For those denied access to bathrooms, the results can be much more serious. OSHA reports  that the effects of “holding it in” can be urinary tract infections and bladder damage – not to mention humiliation and mental distress when you just can’t hold it any longer.

What to do when you don’t have access to a bathroom or lunch-break facility

  1. Not getting the breaks you need? Check No Breaks on Fix My Job.
  2. If you are supposed to get a lunch break (as specified by state law, company policy or by contract), but don’t have access to a place to eat that lunch, bring it up with your employer or, if you are union member, your union rep. If you can get a bunch of your co-workers together to explain the need for a proper break facility, that’s the best way to get the attention of your bosses (and also offers you more legal protection ).
  3. No working bathrooms? Believe it or not, there was a 2001 hit Broadway musical that featured the catchy show tune “It’s a Privilege to Pee” (yup, you can look it up). But in the American workplace, it is more than a privilege; it’s a right. If you don’t have a pot to pee in, your employer is in violation of federal and/or state rules and can face inspections and fines. The company must have an adequate number of bathrooms, separate facilities for men and women (if there are over 15 employees), hot and cold running water, and soap. Even if you are moving from site to site (like, say, a construction worker) the government says you must “have transportation immediately available to nearby toilet facilities.”
  4. If they’ve got the facilities, but they won’t let you go, your rights are probably being violated. OSHA states that “restrictions on access must be reasonable, and may not cause extended delays,” and that they issue citations on a case-by-case basis. So what steps should you take if you are not allowed to go?
    • Write it down. Keep track of when you are denied reasonable access to the facilities, along with any distressing outcomes.
    • Talk to your fellow employees. Chances are they’d like a chance to relieve themselves as well! A concerted effort is usually the most effective way to make changes in the workplace.
    • If you are a union member, let your union representative know. The union contract very likely stipulates rules on bathroom breaks.
    • Tell your boss(or, failing that, your HR department or boss’s boss): let him or her know that you have the right to working restroom facilities, with reasonable time to access them.
    • If things don’t change quickly, file a complaint with OSHA. You can keep it confidential if you wish, and it is illegal for your employer to retaliate against you for filing a complaint. (See Fix My Job’s section on Whistle-blowers.)
    • If you are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, there are also provisions for “reasonable accommodations ” for more extended bathroom breaks. Information about disability discrimination is here, and information on how to file a charge is here.

Useful Links

Federal agency: U.S. Department of Labor, Minimum Length of Meal Period Required Under State Law For Adult Employees in Private Sector”

Federal agency: OSHA Letter of Interpretation on Rest Room Break Policy

Article: OSHA Requirements for a Bathroom from eHOW Money



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