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UK rest breaks law: Have a break
UK health and safety law does not contain a specific right to go, but this is implied in employers' general duties to protect the health, safety and welfare of employees in the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, section 2.
The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 require suitable and sufficient, clean and adequately ventilated and lit sanitary conveniences at readily accessible places. Pregnant women have additional rights.
The Approved Code of Practice (ACoP) to these regulations says: "Sufficient facilities should be provided to enable everyone at work to use them without undue delay. If, for example breaks are taken at set times or workers finish work together and need to wash before leaving."
The ACoP adds: "Facilities need to be provided for pregnant women and nursing mothers if it is 'reasonably practicable' for an employer to do so. You may need to provide a room for pregnant women/nursing mother to rest or lie down." Disability discrimination laws require adequate welfare provision for workers with disabilities.
Nigel Hammond, the Health and Safety Executive's head of Workplace and standards branch, told Hazards: "The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 require the provision of suitable and sufficient sanitary conveniences and washing facilities at readily accessible places for use by employees.
"It is an implicit duty that employers provide reasonable access to these facilities. The Regulations also require provision of suitable facilities where pregnant women or nursing mothers are able to rest."
There are also specific guidelines for certain jobs. The Construction Health Safety and Welfare Regulations require all the usual welfare and toilet facilities on construction sites. Regulation 22 requires employers to provide sanitary and washing facilities, rest facilities and facilities to change and store clothing. The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations place a legal requirement on "duty holders" to ensure proper planning and availability of resources, including welfare facilities, power and water.
HSE has issued guidance on toilet and welfare provision at temporary, short-duration construction and railway maintenance sites.
A call centres circular from HSE's local authority unit says "call handlers must also be allowed to go to the toilet and fetch water/drinks when they need to."
And other safety laws, including the display screen equipment and working time regulations, give specific rights to rest breaks.
Should I stay or should I go?
In the UK, HSE enforces the parts of the law that deal with provision of suitable welfare facilities. But the Department of Trade and Industry is responsible for enforcing how many breaks you get and when.
Hazards asked DTI if workers a right to toilet breaks in paid work time. A spokesperson said: "Not specifically but they are entitled to a 20-minute rest break in any working day that exceeds six hours under the Working Time Regulations."
Asked if an employer can penalise or discipline a worker for taking toilet breaks, DTI responded: "Only with good reason," adding that workers should have a right to appeal under disciplinary rules.
Hazards asked if an employer stop wages for time spent on a toilet break, to which the answer was: "Technically, yes." He added that the action could be challenged at an employment tribunal.
The DTI spokesperson added that an employer could "not normally"
require that an employee only take a toilet break after receiving permission,
but added "there are circumstances, perhaps on a production line
or furnace environment, where taking a toilet break without permission
may put the safety of co-workers as risk."
The TUC's WorkSMART webguide gives this guidance on UK workers' entitlements to a rest breaks during a day or shift.
As an adult worker you are entitled to a rest break where your daily working time is more than six hours.
Details of this rest break, including the duration, can be regulated by a collective or workforce agreement.
If there is no such agreement, the rest break will be for an uninterrupted period of not less than 20 minutes and you will be entitled to spend that break away from your workstation.
DTI guidelines state that the break should be taken during the six hour period, (not at the beginning or end of it), but otherwise at a time to be determined by the employer.
The Regulations covering daily rest breaks do not apply where a worker's working time is unmeasured.
The US pee-breaks memo from John B Miles Jr, head of OSHA's Directorate of Compliance Programs, explained that the standard is 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."
UK health and safety law does not contain a specific right to go, but this is implied in employers' general duties to protect the health, safety and welfare of employees in the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, regulation 2. The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 require suitable and sufficient, clean and adequately ventilated and lit sanitary conveniences at readily accessible places. Pregnant women have additional rights (Hazards 63).
Taking the piss
A lack of toilet breaks can lead to serious ill-health
Thousands of workers could be facing potentially serious health problems because they are denied toilet breaks at work, recent reports suggest.
Workers on production lines, bus drivers and shop workers are familiar with missed loo breaks, but recent reports suggest white collar workers in call centres and telesales are also being told to stay at their workstations.
Staff employed by British Telecom, one of Britain's richest companies, reported at the Communication Workers' Union (CWU) conference this year they have to put up their hand to get permission to go - which could be refused if cover was not available.
In a case reported to the TUC Bad Bosses Hotline last year a poultry producer from the Midlands that sells to high street stores 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.
T&G health and safety researcher Kim Sunley is looking into the problem. "The medical profession has known since the sixties that failure to urinate can cause health problems. The famous urologist, Jack Lapides, highlighted the problems of over-stretching the bladder. Incontinence, bladder and kidney damage can all result from 'holding your water' for too long; Lapides gave it the name 'infrequent voiders' syndrome'."
She added: "Being refused a break to go to the toilet or being made to wait is a denial of a basic human right. It is not only humiliating for the worker but can also result in health problems. Reports to UK unions suggest large numbers may be affected, but we can only guess the true extent of the problem. Many workers are embarrassed to come forward; wetting yourself at work is not something people shout about."
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 1996 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."
Kim Sunley points to the case of a US food manufacturing company where workers are faced with the choice of urinating in their clothes while working on a production line or facing suspension and the sack for leaving their workstations to use the restroom. But she says at least the US authorities are now taking action.
In April this year OSHA, the US government's health and safety enforcement agency, issued an "enforcement memorandum" clarifying the law on access to toilet facilities. It states that under the sanitation standard "the employer must not impose unreasonable restrictions on employee use of the facilities" and that "the standard requires employers to allow employees prompt access to sanitary facilities." The policy also applies to mobile workers.
The memo adds 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."
T&G has written to Jenny Bacon, Director General of OSHA's UK equivalent, the Health and Safety Executive, highlighting its concerns and urging research to establish the extent of the problem.
CAW Automotive sector study: Benchmarking working
conditions (vehicle assembly plants), May 1996.
Welfare at work: Guidance for employers
on welfare provisions. This guide provides a summary of the legal requirements
on toilet and washing facilities, and is the most useful single source.
Single copies free from HSE Books or online
Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations
1992: Approved Code of Practice L24 HSE Books 1992 ISBN 0 7176
0413 6. £5.75. HELA
circular on these regulations
Equal Opportunities Commission webpage on the legislation that gives you rights in relation to hours of work, including laws on breaks, sex discrimination, employment rights, human rights, working time and part-time work.
Void Where Prohibited: Rest Breaks and the Right to Urinate on Company Time, with Ingrid Nygaard. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1998, 244 pages
Memorandum from John B Miles Jnr. OSHA Directorate of Compliance Programs.
OSHA Standards Interpretation and Compliance Letters. Interpretation of
29 CFR 1910.141(c)(I)(I): Toilet facilities. 6 April 1998.
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