The U.S. workers who process the poultry we eat work under such pressure that many don't have sufficient time to use the bathroom, according to a new report from the humanitarian group Oxfam America.
The report, entitled, "No Relief: Denial of Bathroom Breaks in the Poultry Industry," paints a bleak picture of workers' discomfort and humiliation on the production line, including: urinating themselves on the job, wearing diapers as a matter of routine, suffering from urinary tract and bladder infections, and reducing their water intake to avoid the bathroom altogether.
"By its nature, it is demanding and exhausting work," the report's authors write. "But it does not have to be dehumanizing, and it does not have to rob people of their dignity and health."
Oxfam America says it partnered with worker centers to interview dozens of current and former poultry workers around the country about restroom use inside poultry plants. Among workers surveyed in one Alabama facility, nearly 80 percent said they weren't always able to use the bathroom when they needed to. At a Minnesota facility, 86 percent said so.
Debbie Berkowitz, a health and safety expert cited in the report, told The Huffington Post that bathroom access is often the first complaint raised by poultry workers she meets.
“People would be shocked to know that their chicken is organic and antibiotic-free, but that the workers who handle the chicken were compelled to soil themselves or wear diapers in order to keep their job," said Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the National Employment Law Project.
The National Chicken Council, an industry trade group, said in a statement that restroom breaks are planned for any production line.
"We’re troubled by these claims but also question this group’s efforts to paint the whole industry with a broad brush based on a handful of anonymous claims," the group said in its response to the report. "We believe such instances are extremely rare and that U.S. poultry companies work hard to prevent them."
The report's authors offer a number of explanations for the alleged denial of breaks. Supervisors, they say, are under intense pressure to keep line speeds moving, and therefore often turn down workers' requests, or punish them with disciplinary points if they ask too often. And when workers are afforded breaks, they often aren't given the time they really need to travel the several minutes it takes going to and from the bathroom -- especially as they must doff and don their elaborate safety equipment.
Workers told Oxfam America that they sometimes wait as long as an hour before their request to leave the production line to use the bathroom is granted.
“I’ve seen people pee on the line -- and sometimes when they’re running to get to the bathroom, women pee on themselves,” one Arkansas worker says in the report.
Due to the obvious health risks, employers have an obligation to grant workers adequate use of the bathroom under U.S. workplace safety law. Any restrictions on bathroom use "must be reasonable and may not cause extended delays," according to guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA recommends that companies maintain "relief workers" to substitute for employees bound for the restroom, but Oxfam America says many poultry companies don't make the necessary investments.
Oxfam America says the only two companies that responded to its findings were Tyson Foods and Perdue. Tyson told the group that it couldn't address particular anecdotes because Oxfam America wouldn't provide workers' names. "We can tell you we’re committed to treating each other with respect and this includes giving workers time off the production line when they need it," the company said, according to the report. "Restroom breaks are not restricted to scheduled work breaks and can be taken at any time."
"The anecdotes reported are not consistent with Perdue’s policies and practices," Perdue said in response to the report's findings. "Unfortunately, we do not have enough information to investigate the validity of these complaints."