By Katie Weatherford, Center for Progressive Reform
Can you imagine working for a boss who refuses you the dignity of taking a bathroom break? According to a revealing new report published today by Oxfam America, denial of bathroom breaks is a very real practice at poultry plants across the country, and line workers at these plants often “wait inordinately long times (an hour or more), then race to accomplish the task within a certain timeframe (e.g., ten minutes) or risk discipline.”
If you’ve never worked on an assembly or production line, you may wonder why workers need approval to use the bathroom in the first place. The processing line at a poultry plant moves rapidly, which means when one worker leaves the line, another must take his or her place to keep up with production. Typically, the employer will have a system in place for workers to signal when they need a break, and then a “relief worker” or “floater” will fill in.
But according to Oxfam’s report, No Relief: Denial of Bathroom Breaks in the Poultry Industry, poultry plants don’t always employ enough relief workers for the system to function properly, resulting in workers being denied breaks to prevent disruptions on the line. In effect, as Oxfam puts it, “Workers are reduced to pieces of the machine, little more than body parts that hang, cut, trim, and load—rapidly and relentlessly.” So, instead of granting requests for bathroom breaks, supervisors yell at workers, humiliate them, and threaten disciplinary action or even deportation.
Oxfam found that workers are so fearful of losing their jobs or other adverse consequences that instead of asking for bathroom breaks, they try to eat and drink less to avoid needing to use the bathroom altogether. Current and former workers interviewed by Oxfam shared personal stories and stories of coworkers who were utterly humiliated when they accidentally urinated or defecated while standing on the processing line. Some workers started wearing diapers to avoid potential humiliation or retaliation.
Denying workers reasonable access to the bathroom is not only an infringement on personal dignity, it is also a threat to workers’ health and safety. Not using the bathroom when needed or wearing diapers can lead to urinary tract infections, and if left untreated, these can lead to serious kidney infections. Other health concerns include stomach pain, constipation, inflammation of the colon (diverticulitis), and hemorrhoids.
For women, the risk of developing a urinary tract infection is 10 times greater than for men, and the risk is even higher for pregnant women. If a urinary tract infection progresses to a kidney infection during pregnancy, it can cause low birth weight and early labor. And the Oxfam report cites one study concluding that E. coli infections, another risk that line workers face, could also cause serious complications in pregnancy, including low birth weight, preterm birth, and miscarriage.
When workers do get to take a bathroom break, Oxfam found they are often limited to five or ten minutes, in which they have to get to the restroom, remove their gear, use the restroom, put their gear back on, wash their hands, and return to the line. Given these time constraints, workers often have to run to the restroom, increasing their chance of injuries from falling on slippery plant floors.
Oxfam also makes the case that denying bathroom breaks is not only bad for workers, it’s also bad for business. Restricting bathroom access could increase a company’s legal liability and potentially damage its reputation. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) “sanitation standard,” employers are required to provide workers access to toilet facilities promptly and without unreasonable restrictions or delays. Failure to do so is a regulatory violation subject to a fine. In fact, OSHA has recently increased its attention on the poultry industry, and in 2015, the agency cited a Delaware plant for a “serious” violation for denying bathroom breaks to its workers and proposed a $4,000 penalty.
Oxfam argues that denying bathroom breaks may also violate U.S. anti-discrimination laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act and civil rights laws outlawing gender and sex discrimination, given that the harm is especially acute for women, especially pregnant women, and workers with disabilities.
How can poultry companies fix this problem? Oxfam recommends a list of solutions, beginning with simply granting workers bathroom breaks when they need them. Among other things, Oxfam also recommends that companies:
- Develop written policies on bathroom breaks;
- Train supervisors on company policies;
- Conduct routine assessments on whether supervisors are complying with company policy;
- Hire enough staff to relieve workers on the line without lengthy delays;
- Allow workers a means of raising concerns without retaliation;
- Investigate complaints; and
- Regularly communicate with workers.
The Oxfam America report is available online at https://www.oxfamamerica.org/explore/research-publications/no-relief/.