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Give us a break! briefing
Give us a break!
You are an adult. You go to work, you do your job. You'd think that going to the loo when you needed to would be part of the deal. Unfortunately, for most workers it is not that simple. Dickensian bathroom break policies, aided by a loo breaks loophole in the law, is putting the health and dignity of Britain's workers at risk.
Britain's bad bosses have a dirty secret. They don't think you deserve the right to choose when you need to go to the loo. They don't think toilet breaks should be on the clock. They don't trust you behind closed doors, so they spy on their washrooms. They work you so hard there's no time for breaks.
Sometimes bad management means you can't go; sometimes bad facilities mean you won't go.
A November 2002 poll of more than 1,000 staff found over half (54 per cent) of British workers are too busy to take toilet breaks. The Ex-Lax sponsored research also found 1 in 4 were put off by the condition of workplace bathrooms, with almost 1 in 4 (18 per cent) saying there was not enough privacy.
For many others though, it's not a case of "won't go". They work in "can't go" workplaces where the management's penny-pinching Lavatory Lieutenants slam the lid on toilet breaks.
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Can't go, won't go
In the 2002 Loo Breaks Study, Christine Norton, a nursing professor at St Mark's Hospital, London, asked 200 workers if they "had any problems using toilet facilities to pass stools while working." Of these 151, over 75 per cent, said they had a problem at least some of the time.
She adds: "Two-thirds of the sample completing questionnaires believed that the type of work they did, the structure of their working day or the activities they were involved in during the day prevented them from taking loo breaks at work."
One in three said management "imposed rules and regulations that led them to defer taking loo breaks" during the working day.
Norton found half of call centre staff deferred toilet breaks "because of management and related issues, and one if four deferred several times a week or more." Nurses reported similar problems with "work culture".
Call centre workers, teachers and nurses were particularly badly affected.
Christine Norton. Loo breaks at
work! Is there a problem? EurOhs, vol.2, no.7, pages 26-27, November
Making a stink
Mean bosses at Brown Brothers' factory in Kirkconnell, Scotland docked their workers' wages for the time they spend in the loo. The workers' union TGWU objected after the 200 staff were issued with smart cards that deduct their pay for the time they're away from the factory floor.
One worker said in one week employers had pinched £5.28, an hours wages, from his wage packet just for going to the loo. He said: "The motto among the staff here is: 'Have a break - have a quick crap'."
And the big names are at it too. Construction giant Bovis was panned for its dirty habits and fined £5,000. On a £15 million job, the company wanted 80 workers on 12-hour shifts to share just four toilets, describe in court by a Health and Safety Executive inspector as "totally inadequate" and "only suitable for 10 men working a 40-hour week."
Dave Smith (below), a safety rep with construction union UCATT, was fired
by Tarmac off-shoot Schal for making a stink about "pigsty"
toilets. Not his conclusion, but the views of all 150 workers on the site,
who added their names to a five-sheet petition condemning the loos.
A bus company in Gloucester went as far as issuing emergency potties (chamber pots) to drivers banned in 1999 from using the toilets at the city's bus terminal.
In 1998 communication union CWU reported that British Telecom, one of Britain's biggest employers, required staff to put up their hand to get permission to go - which could be refused if cover was not available (Hazards 64).
And the TUC cites the case of a poultry producer from the Midlands made workers who wanted to go to the toilet put their names on a list. Some had to wait up to two hours to get permission.
Please relieve me, let me go
Speed-up of work and new management techniques are making loo breaks vulnerable across the industrialised world and in big name companies.
In Canada, after a survey of workers at the four major motor manufacturers, GM, Ford, Chrysler and CAMI, the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW) concluded: "Across all four companies, workers found it difficult to find a relief worker so that they could go to the washroom" (Hazards 64).
The US foodworkers' union UFCW has reported similar problems in a number of workplaces, with workers resorting to the use of adult diapers.
A US Bureau of National Affairs report highlights the case of a female factory worker who spent 10 per cent of her weekly wage on incontinent pads, worn inside her uniform because she was forced to work six hours without a break. One company even discouraged workers from drinking water to reduce time spent in the toilet (cited in Workers' Health International Newsletter, no.53, 1998).
A lack of facilities for women in traditionally male industries can have its own problems. A pregnant night shift worker at a Ford plant in Southampton had to be escorted by a security guard across a badly lit car park to the nearest women's toilet so he could unlock it, wait until she'd finished, then escort her back.
TeleTech, one of the world's largest call centre companies with operations in the UK, dismissed a pregnant woman for taking too many toilet breaks at one of its Australian workplaces.
In the US, a compliance
memo from the government health and safety enforcement agency OSHA
says that where an employee's absence would be "disruptive", for example
on assembly lines, extended delays are still not acceptable and recommends
relief worker systems. "As long as there are sufficient relief workers
to assure that employees need not wait an unreasonably long time to use
the bathroom, OSHA believes that these systems comply with the standard."
Keeping tabs - privacy issues
Steel union ISTC reports managers at Albion Pressed Metals had nine inches cut of the bottom of loo doors so they could catch workers smoking.
Other employers have argued for toilet surveillance as a workplace anti-drugs measure, with video surveillance in workplace bathrooms.
In Australia, the installation in 2002 of permanent cameras in the toilets of a drug testing facility in Mount Isa Mines (MIM) was condemned as a gross invasion of privacy and "an example of drug testing policy gone mad" by the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union (AMWU). AMWU is concerned that MIM has cameras permanently positioned at its facility capable of close-up filming of both men and women urinating.
In the US, multinational Colgate Palmolive found itself in trouble after workers discovered hidden cameras peering down at them in the men's room and exercise room at work. The National Labor Relations Board ruled that the cameras should not have been introduced without negotiation with the union.
Union organisation can get workers the breaks then need.
Advertising staff at Bristol United Press used to have to ask permission to use the toilet at work - until their union, GPMU, ran a successful protest leafleting campaign (Hazards 80).
The US union at bourbon maker Jim Beam, UFCW, won a reversal of the company's policy of limiting bathroom breaks for workers at a Kentucky distillery (Hazards 80).
The rules - and disciplinary measures used to enforce them - outraged workers, some of whom said they'd had to pee themselves or face disciplinary action - and drew a citation from the Labor Cabinet, the official enforcement agency, which called the policy illegal.
You can't hold on
Inadequate bathrooms, spies in the toilet and too few bathroom breaks and more than an affront to dignity, they are a workplace health and safety hazard.
A compliance memorandum from the US health and safety enforcement agency OHSA explained that the rules were necessary "so that employees will not suffer the adverse health effects that can result if toilets are not available when employees need them...
"Medical studies show the importance of regular urination with women generally needing to void more frequently than men. Adverse health effects that may result from voluntary urinary retention include increased frequency of urinary tract infections (UTIs), which can lead to more serious infections and, in rare situations, renal damage. UTIs during pregnancy have been associated with low birthweight babies, who are at risk of for additional health problems compared to normal weight infants.
"Medical evidence also shows that health problems, including constipation, abdominal pain, diverticuli, and haemorrhoids, can result if individuals delay defecation." (Compliance memo)
Professor Christine Norton, a consultant in bowel control at St Mark's Hospital, London, notes "that ignoring the urge to empty the bowel can lead to constipation. Over time, repeatedly ignoring signals that the bowel is full can lead to bowel distension, a reduction in muscle tone and even to accidents of the bowel."
Holding off peeing can also lead to a thickening of the bladder wall and the need to pee even more frequently.
Waiting to go go
Not getting to go when you need to can cause health effects including:
Under Britain's crazy workplace welfare laws, every employer has got to provide access to a loo - but they can also stop you from using it! TUC and Hazards believe when you've gotta go, you've gotta go. We want:
Marc Linder, the Iowa professor whose book, Void where prohibited, awakened unions to the need to treat toilet breaks as a health and safety negotiating issue, has published a follow-up.
Void where prohibited revisited: The trickle down effect of OSHA's at will bathroom break regulation investigates whether restrictive restroom policies still exist in the US, five years after the federal health and safety agency OSHA - stung into action by Linder's first edition - issued an enforcement memorandum that "requires employers to make toilet facilities available so that employees can use them when they need to do so".
The real-life experience of US workers suggest the answer is "no," something the Jim Beam dispute in Kentucky starkly illustrates.
In the end, it was union pressure that won improvements in Kentucky.
Void where prohibited revisited: The trickle down effect of OSHA's
at will bathroom break regulation. Marc Linder. ISBN: 0-97119594-0-4.
HAZARDS MAGAZINE WORKERS' HEALTH INTERNATIONAL NEWS