Toilet facilities must be made available and accessible

OSHA's sanitation standard for general industry, 29 CFR 1910.141, requires employers to provide their employees with toilet facilities. An April 6, 1998 memorandum to the Agency's regional administrators and State Plan State designees explains the standard's requirements that employers make toilet facilities available so that employees can use them when needed.
By Sherman Williamson, OSHA Department of Enforcement February 1, 2006

OSHA’s sanitation standard for general industry, 29 CFR 1910.141, requires employers to provide their employees with toilet facilities. An April 6, 1998 memorandum to the Agency’s regional administrators and State Plan State designees explains the standard’s requirements that employers make toilet facilities available so that employees can use them when needed.

The memorandum states that the employer may not impose unreasonable restrictions on employee use of the facilities. OSHA believes this requirement is implicit in the language of the standard. Individuals vary significantly in the frequency with which they need to use the toilet. Pregnancy, medical conditions or medication and environmental factors all influence the frequency at which an employee may need toilet breaks. Medical studies have found that delaying elimination can result in serious medical problems.

The intent of the sanitation standard is that employees be able to use toilet facilities promptly when needed. The standard requires that toilet facilities be “provided” in every workplace. The most basic meaning of “provide” is “make available.” Toilets that employees are not allowed to use for extended periods cannot be said to be “available” to those employees. Similarly, a clear intent of Table J-1 in the standard indicating the adequate numbers of toilets for the size of the workforce is to assure that employees will not have to wait in long lines to use those facilities.

The standard also states that the toilet provision does not apply to mobile work crews or to locations that are normally unattended, “provided the employees working at these locations have transportation immediately available to nearby toilet facilities which meet the other requirements” of the standard. Thus employees who are members of mobile crews, or who work at normally unattended locations must be able to leave their work location “immediately” for a “nearby” toilet facility. This provision was intended to provide these employees with protection equivalent to that provided to employees at fixed worksites. Read together, the two provisions make clear that all employees must have prompt access to toilet facilities.

Any restrictions on access must be reasonable, and may not cause extended delays. For example, a number of employers have instituted signal or relief worker systems for employees working on assembly lines or in other jobs where any employee’s absence, even for very brief periods (e.g., bathroom breaks), would be disruptive.

Under these systems, an employee who needs a bathroom break gives some sort of a signal so another employee may temporarily stand in for that worker. As long as there are sufficient relief workers to assure that employees need not wait an unreasonably long time to use the bathroom, OSHA believes that these systems comply with the standard.

Complaints of restrictions on toilet facility use are evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine whether the restrictions are reasonable. Careful consideration must be given to the nature of the restriction, including the length of time that employees are required to delay bathroom use, and the employer’s explanation for the restriction. In addition, the investigation should examine whether restrictions are general policy or arise only in particular circumstances, whether the employer’s policy recognizes individual medical needs, whether employees have reported adverse health effects and the frequency with which employees are denied permission to use toilet facilities. The April 6, 1998 memorandum is available on OSHA’s Web site at www.osha.gov under the “interpretations” section.