Poultry Workers Denied Bathroom Breaks

Health Letter, November 2016

By Sammy Almashat, M.D., M.P.H.

In May 2016, Oxfam published a graphic report that exposed one of the many horrific conditions workers are subjected to on poultry disassembly lines.[1] The report, titled “No Relief: Denial of Bathroom Breaks in the Poultry Industry,” described workers being routinely denied bathroom breaks and urinating and defecating on themselves as a result. The denial of this most basic of human need has humiliating and often dangerous consequences for the workers.

The poultry industry

The U.S. is the world’s largest poultry producer, and Americans consume more poultry than any other meat.[2] Over the past several decades, the industry has both grown and become concentrated into fewer and fewer companies, with just 10 companies controlling 79 percent of the broiler chicken market in 2015.[3] The nature of poultry production has also changed over time, with an increasing number of Americans preferring chicken processed into tenders and other pieces,[4] which, in turn, requires a large number of workers to cut and trim the whole birds. Large numbers of these workers are immigrants; some are undocumented; and most of them earn meager wages (averaging just $11 per hour, or $20,000 to $25,000 per year)[5] for the backbreaking work they do in the poultry plants.

The atrocious conditions in which poultry and meatpacking workers toil have been described previously in Oxfam’s 2015 report “Lives on the Line,”[6] in addition to our November 2013[7] and March 2012[8]Health Letter articles.

Highlights of Oxfam report

In its May 2016 report, Oxfam noted:

Routinely, poultry workers say, they are denied breaks to use the bathroom. Supervisors mock their needs and ignore their requests; they threaten punishment or firing.

Oxfam went on to state that the workers “struggle to cope with this denial of a basic human need” and suffer the following appalling consequences:

Workers urinate and defecate while standing on the line; they wear diapers to work; they restrict intake of liquids and fluids to dangerous degrees; they endure pain and discomfort while they worry about their health and job security. And they are in danger of serious health problems.

Many poultry workers reported that they “dramatically” cut down on eating and drinking in order to prevent this humiliating experience from occurring. Workers can become dangerously dehydrated in this way, especially if they are doing intensive physical labor for hours at a time on the line and if they have kidney disease, are diabetic or are pregnant.

Women had additional concerns. For one, some female workers reported to Oxfam that they had to tell their male supervisors why they had to go to the bathroom, including if they were menstruating. Furthermore, women are far more likely than men to get a urinary tract infection if they do not urinate frequently enough.

When workers were permitted to use the restroom, they reported being given only a few minutes, including the time to go to and from the bathroom. The Oxfam report quoted the Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2013 report “Unsafe at These Speeds”:[9]

Workers described stripping off their gear while running to the restroom, an embarrassing but necessary action to meet the strict five-minute time limit. This race to the bathroom is also dangerous because processing plant floors can be slippery with fat, blood, water, and other liquids.

Many reported “running to the bathroom, sometimes losing control of their bladder on the way.”

Workers were often given bathroom breaks simultaneously, resulting in long lines and forcing many to go back to work before they had a chance to relieve themselves. Others reported having to sign a paper before going to the bathroom and being disciplined if they did not return in the time allotted. Jean, a worker at Tyson, the largest chicken producer in the country,[10] said: “You go to the bathroom one minute late, they have you disciplined.”

What can be done?

Oxfam noted in its report that “denial of regular access to the bathroom is a clear violation of US workplace safety law.” Because women, pregnant women, and those with certain illnesses or disabilities may be especially at risk, the report also concluded that denying bathroom breaks “may also violate US anti-discrimination laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and civil rights laws outlawing gender and sex discrimination.”

While there is a federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulation requiring employers to provide a minimum number of toilet facilities for each sex and prompt access to these facilities when needed, there is no requirement for bathroom breaks.[11] However, OSHA has issued numerous documents over the years that make its position clear that employers:[12]

  • Should not impose unreasonable restrictions on restroom use.
  • Should ensure that restrictions, such as locking doors or requiring workers to sign out a key, do not cause extended delays.
  • Should allow workers to leave their work locations to use a restroom when needed.

OSHA has the authority to enforce these positions and has, in at least one case, cited a poultry plant for preventing workers from going to the bathroom.[13] However, without a regulation explicitly requiring bathroom breaks at certain intervals, employees must ask permission to use the restroom, which many working on nonstop assembly lines may be unwilling to do too often for fear of losing their jobs.

Until workers have sufficient bargaining power, the inhumane conditions at poultry plants likely will not change to any great extent. A strong union is essential to effecting change, as is grass-roots pressure on the federal and state governments (including federal and state OSHA agencies) to crack down severely on the enormously profitable poultry companies for any practices that deny workers their most basic human rights and dignity.

Marta, a worker at a poultry plant in Texas, epitomized the dehumanizing conditions that she and her coworkers are forced to endure day-in, day-out at the plants, with a plea to her bosses and company executives:

“Put themselves in the place of the worker. … And stop thinking that we’re machines.”


References

[1] Oxfam. No relief: Denial of bathroom breaks in the poultry industry. May 9, 2016. https://www.oxfamamerica.org/explore/research-publications/no-relief/. Accessed September 27, 2016.

[2] U.S. Department of Agriculture. Poultry & Eggs. http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/animal-products/poultry-eggs.aspx. Accessed September 27, 2016.

[3] Thornton G. Top 10 US chicken producers grow in new directions. March 7, 2016. WATTAgNet. http://www.wattagnet.com/articles/25893-top—us-chicken-producers-grow-in-new-directions. Accessed September 28, 2016.

[4] Oxfam. Lives on the line: The human cost of cheap chicken. October 2015. https://www.oxfamamerica.org/static/media/files/Lives_on_the_Line_Full_Report_Final.pdf. Accessed September 28, 2016.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Public Citizen. Relaxing regulations at poultry plants a threat to worker, consumer safety. Health Letter. November 2013. https://www.citizen.org/our-work/health-and-safety/relaxing-regulations-poultry-plants-threat-worker-consumer. Accessed September 28, 2016.

[8] Public Citizen. The jungle: Meatpacking workers, 100 years later. Health Letter. March 2012. https://www.citizen.org/sites/default/files/hl_201203.pdf. Accessed September 28, 2016.

[9] Southern Poverty Law Center. Unsafe at These Speeds. February 28, 2013. https://www.splcenter.org/20130228/unsafe-these-speeds. Accessed October 19, 2016.

[10] Thornton G. Top 10 US chicken producers grow in new directions. March 7, 2016. WATTAgNet. http://www.wattagnet.com/articles/25893-top—us-chicken-producers-grow-in-new-directions. Accessed September 28, 2016.

[11] 29 C.F.R. 1910.141(c). Occupational Safety and Health Standards. General Environmental Controls: Sanitation. https://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=STANDARDS&p_id=9790. Accessed September 28, 2016.

[12] Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Safety and Health Topics: Restrooms and Sanitation Requirements. https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/restrooms_sanitation/. Accessed October 12, 2016.

[13] Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Citation and Notification of Penalty. Issued to Allen Harim Foods LLC. June 15, 2015. https://www.osha.gov/ooc/citations/AllenHarimFoodsLLC_1014956_06152015.pdf. Accessed October 19, 2016.