When you think of OSHA, you probably think of hard hats and hazard signs. If bathroom breaks make the list at all, then they’re likely near the bottom.
But workplace bathrooms really are an occupational health and safety matter. Being denied regular access to safe and sanitary bathrooms can lead to a slew of health problems. For this reason, OSHA requires employers to meet that need for their employees.
The regulations dictate clear specifications for the facilities themselves, but the guidelines for “access” are a little fuzzier. For your own health and safety, it’s important to know what your employer is and is not allowed to do.
What Facilities Do Employers Need to Provide?
OSHA requires employers provide access to toilet and hand-washing facilities to the following specs:
- Bathroom facilities need to be within a quarter mile of employees (including agricultural workers).
- Mobile work crews need readily available transportation to a bathroom “nearby” (less than 10 minutes).
- If there are 15 employees or less, they can share a single-toilet facility. The number of required toilets increases from there with the number of employees. The numbers vary slightly for construction and agricultural workers.
- Bathrooms have to be gender-segregated unless they’re intended for a single person and lock from the inside.
- Multi-person bathrooms need each toilet to be in a separate compartment with a locking door and enough visual privacy.
- Urinals don’t count as toilets. In male-only bathrooms, they can be added as long as the number of actual toilets doesn’t fall below two-thirds the minimum.
- There need to be hand-washing facilities, maintained in a sanitary condition.
- Employers need to supply running water, soap, and towels or hand dryers.
All of these requirements are designed to ensure: A) bathrooms meet sanitation standards, and B) there are enough toilets to serve the workforce without long lines.
What Restrictions Can Employers Place on Bathroom Access?
OSHA requires employers to “allow employees prompt access to bathroom facilities.”
So far, the agency has refused to issue specific and measurable minimums (like “employees must have access to the bathroom every x hours for at least x minutes”). Bathroom needs vary by individual and health condition. It would be impossible to set fair and healthy minimums that work for everyone, and a practical break schedule varies from job to job.
Restrictions on bathroom use are allowed but “must be reasonable and may not cause extended delays.” Basically, they’ve said that “reasonable” restrictions won’t keep you from using the bathroom when they need to.
OSHA also says:
- Employers can’t deny you the ability to use the restroom when you need to, even if your job is essential (but there might be consequences later, more on this below).
- If you have a medical condition that makes you need the bathroom more frequently, employers need to “be flexible.”
- Women and older individuals typically use the bathroom more frequently, and employers should take that into consideration.
The question of whether a policy is “reasonable” often gets decided in court. Here are a few examples of restrictions that OSHA or the courts have already decided your employer is allowed to enforce.
- Employers can require you to wait on a coworker to replace you at work stations that require constant coverage (like assembly lines, bus drivers, and cashiers). If you don’t ask for relief before abandoning your station, they can justifiably terminate you. At the same time, they have a responsibility to make sure enough relief workers are available, and they have to relieve you “promptly.”
- Employers can require you to use a bathroom key or a sign-in sheet, as long as your access is still “reasonable and prompt.”
- It may be legal to terminate you if your employer can prove that your bathroom needs interfere with your ability to do your job or cause “undue hardship” on your employer.
As you can see, there’s a lot of leeway and interpretation there. OSHA addresses problematic policies on a case by case basis.
Are Other Laws or Agencies Involved?
OSHA isn’t the only agency involved in fair workplace bathroom standards.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) imposes facility requirements of its own. It also requires “reasonable accommodation” for employees with disabilities and medical conditions—and providing extended or frequent bathroom breaks where needed usually qualifies.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) may have jurisdiction over complaints if bathroom policies disproportionately affect one of the federally protected classes. For bathroom policy, this is often sex, gender identity, and/or age (over 40).
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) addresses the question of whether your employer required to pay you for bathroom breaks (and the answer is yes). Since short breaks (5 to 20 minutes) are mutually beneficial to employers and employees, the FLSA says they should be considered “hours worked.” Employers can refuse to pay for breaks over 20 minutes.
And finally, state laws can have an impact on any of the above.
What If My Employer Is Violating OSHA Standards?
If your employer is violating any OSHA standard, OSHA recommends you discuss your concerns with your employer first, but it isn’t required before you file an anonymous Safety and Health Complaint. For bathroom policies, it may be worthwhile to go through other relevant agencies in addition or instead.
Your employer also isn’t allowed to retaliate against you for either raising a health and safety concern with them or for filing an OSHA complaint. “Retaliation” includes suspending or firing you, laying you off, or reducing your pay or hours. If they take any of those actions against you, you can file a Whistleblower Complaint with OSHA within 30 days.
Knowing your rights is the first step to keeping them. Employers are obligated to give their employees ready and hygienic access to bathroom facilities because denying you access can be a health risk. And if your employer isn’t living up to this standard reasonably, then you have the right to expect change.