The federal government is promising new relief from a classic cause of stress. It’s starting to issue citations against employers who don’t let workers go to the bathroom when they feel they need to.
Inspectors for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the first alleged violator last month, following complaints by workers at a Missouri poultry-processing plant operated by Hudson Foods Inc., of Rogers, Ark.
Some Hudson workers said they had accidents while waiting for relief workers or supervisors to make toilet breaks possible. Siding with the workers, OSHA said that some “employees were denied necessary use of bathroom facilities” at a Hudson plant in Noel, Mo.
The little-noticed citation against Hudson was part of 54 pages of complaints about the Noel operation that added up to $332,500 in fines, which the company is challenging.
In an unrelated matter, Hudson’s beef-processing plant in Nebraska was shut down Thursday after federal investigators found evidence of bacterial contamination in ground beef.
OSHA’s chief spokesman in Washington, Stephen Gaskill, said it’s the first time the agency has punished anyone for denying workers toilet breaks.
The OSHA action represents a challenge to the authority of supervisors over unscheduled work breaks and, experts say, could affect many industrial operations that require long lines of workers to perform continuously at high speed. Meat packers, food processors, farm and garment workers all are likely to gain, said University of Notre Dame economist Charles Craypo.
The issue has been a rallying point in organizing efforts and a factor in contract negotiations ever since assembly lines began, Craypo added. Until now, he said, the government has left toilet breaks to collective bargaining.
Since the July 22 finding against Hudson, however, OSHA inspectors have shown an interest in toilet breaks at a Tyson Foods poultry-processing plant in Jackson, Miss. And organizers for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union are promising to bring OSHA-enforced “bathroom rights” to workers at a Carolina Food Processors plant in Tar Heel, N.C., that the union wants to represent.
Thom Hanson, chief regulatory compliance official for Hudson, acknowledged several incidents, but said that at least some were a union ploy. Most workers at Noel, he said, have no problem with their contract stipulating two half-hour breaks per nine-hour shift. At the longest, toilet breaks are three hours apart.
“Beyond that, they need to ask supervisors to release them,” Hanson said. “Normally, a relief person comes by and takes their place. In an emergency, they can just go.” But Deborah Martin, who worked five years at Hudson’s plant at Noel as a packer, said the break requests are not always approved. “It matters how good you get along with your supervisor. And it’s pretty hard to leave the line when you’ve got thousands of chickens coming at you.”
Eighteen months ago, Martin was featured in a hidden-camera expose by NBC affiliate KJRH in Tulsa, Okla., of toilet-break problems at the Noel plant.
OSHA inspectors from Kansas City, Mo., after spending six months at the Noel plant, actually raised two toilet break issues.
One involved allegations of an inadequate number of toilets for the plant’s 1,100 workers. Longstanding OSHA regulations call for six toilets for the first 150 workers and one more for each additional 40.
By also citing supervisors for not permitting “necessary use of bathroom facilities,” OSHA extended its regulatory reach in a new way, said Chuck Adkins, the agency’s regional administrator in Kansas City.
“If the standard requires toilets,” Adkins explains, “it’s implicit that you let people use them.”