Legal lavatories: preferred potty policies for jobsites

From an early age, we’re taught that discussing certain bodily functions is generally considered to be inappropriate. Although everyone has a need to use restroom facilities several times each day as part of their general health, most people find the topic either embarrassing or disgusting. As a result, talking about this reality is something many people choose to avoid.

But if you’re responsible for overseeing a jobsite, you cannot afford to ignore the topic. For one thing, workplace health and safety rules mandate the presence of adequate restroom facilities for your workers. Failure to do so can result in a costly violation.

Having adequate rest room facilities is a critical element of promoting worker health. Every worker has a basic human necessity to urinate and defecate multiple times a day, and it’s likely that many of times will occur during working hours. There’s no “normal” number of a times a worker may need to use those facilities, as each person’s body functions differently.

In addition, many workers may have conditions that may contribute to either temporary or long-term needs for more frequent restroom use, such as illness, pregnancy, urinary tract infections (UTIs), and digestive conditions such as colitis and diverticulitis. Medications and fluid intake may also affect the frequency of restroom use.

What happens when workers aren’t given the opportunity to urinate or defecate as needed? They may suffer a variety of medical problems. For example, failing to urinate when necessary can contribute to UTIs, which can become significant enough to cause more serious conditions such as kidney damage. Not defecating when needed can lead to problems such as abdominal pain and constipation. These medical issues can result in impaired work performance and even days lost to illness.

More important, having inadequate access to restroom families can have a negative impact on workplace morale. Just a positive safety culture makes workers feel more productive and valued, neglecting this important need can be dehumanizing and lead to frustration and anger.

When planning for restroom facilities at jobsites, employers need to consider three factors: the number of employees who will need to use the facilities, where they are located in relation to where work is being performed, and the gender of employees on the worksite. To ensure worker privacy and safety, toilet facilities should include some provision for locking doors.

Generally speaking, OSHA rules specify the number of restroom facilities based upon the total number of employees at the worksite. For example, if there are 15 or fewer employees, the minimum standard calls for just one unisex bathroom/toilet with a locking door. For up to 35 employees, two toilets becomes the minimum. From 36 to 55, you’ll need three, and so forth to six toilets for 150 employees and an additional facility for each 40 employees above that number. Male-only facilities can substitute urinals for some toilets if at least two-thirds of the required number of toilets are present.

What about workplaces employing workers of more than one gender? If restroom facilities contain just one toilet and are lockable (in other words, like a standard porta-potty), they are suitable for workers of both genders. As long as your site has enough single-user facilities for the number of employees, you probably won’t need to make special accommodations. However, if the restrooms accommodate multiple users at one time, you’ll need to have enough facilities for the maximum number of employees of a gender who are likely to be working at any given time.

Another consideration is worker access to restroom facilities. While OSHA has not published specific distances, its response to employer questions on the issue offer useful insight. As an example, while the law says that toilets must be “provided,” OSHA has defined that word to mean the facilities must be located where it doesn’t take too long for workers to get to and to ensure workers aren’t forced to wait in lengthy lines for access. In one response to an employer, OSHA suggested that having restroom facilities “nearby” suggests they must be located where it would take workers less than 10 minutes to reach them.

That “nearby” standard is of particular interest to employers whose crews move from jobsite to jobsite throughout the day. These mobile crews must have readily available transportation to allow them to reach toilet facilities quickly when they need to use them.

Restroom facilities are excepted to be safe and sanitary. Toilets are expected to have individual compartments and privacy partitions, as well as doors that can be locked. Clean hand-washing facilities must be provided.

One thing OSHA doesn’t specify is whether employees can be considered on the clock when using restroom facilities. That said, employers are allowed to make reasonable restrictions if bathroom use interferes with workflow. As an example, an assembly-line worker who takes a bathroom break could bring the entire line to a halt, so the employer may require the employee to signal for and be replaced by another worker when he or she needs the break.

Compliance officers have latitude in interpreting restroom access standards. The best advice is to treat workers humanely and ensure they have access to restroom facilities as needed. Limiting access or discouraging workers from taking needed breaks is damaging to morale. As with so many other workplace issues, following the golden rule and treating others as we would wish to be treated provides sound and practical guidance.

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