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OSHA agrees with UI professors: Workers have right to use the bathroom

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Federal regulations that say employers must provide toilet facilities for their workers also mean that workers must be permitted to use the bathroom when they need to at work, according to new guidelines issued this week by regulators to clarify an issue that two University of Iowa professors raised with OSHA and have been closely watching.

John B. Miles Jr., director of compliance programs for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), issued a four-page memorandum Monday, April 6 to regional administrators of the agency, spelling out the proper way to interpret a federal rule that says "toilet facilities, in toilet rooms separate for each sex, shall be provided in all places of employment."

"This memorandum explains OSHA's interpretation that this standard requires employers to make toilet facilities available so that employees can use them when they need to do so," the memo says. "The employer may not impose unreasonable restrictions on employee use of the facilities." ...

"Recently, however, OSHA has received requests for clarification of this point and has decided to issue this memorandum to explain its position clearly," Miles wrote.

Marc Linder, professor of law, and Ingrid Nygaard, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, initiated OSHA's reexamination of its position on access to bathrooms for workers.

They are the authors of a new book, "Void Where Prohibited: Rest Breaks and the Right to Urinate on Company Time" (Cornell University Press), which argues that many workers are not allowed to go to the bathroom when they need to because of a lack of regulatory enforcement, callousness by some employers who pay little attention to worker rights, and miserly planning in some work environments.

The restrictions lead to personal indignities and health problems for many employees.

Linder has made frequent appeals to state and federal regulators to clarify the regulations.

"One of the points we make in the book is that the 25-year-old standard requiring employers to provide toilets makes no sense unless it includes the obligation to let workers use those toilets," Linder says. "But until OSHA was confronted with the research in the book, and with strong appeals from the United Food and Commercial Workers, the agency was unwilling to enforce the law in a way that guaranteed employees the right to use the bathroom at work."