Employers should not be able to penalise staff for using the toilet in work time, and should provide their employees with clean, modern lavatories, says the TUC this week, as it calls for a change in the law to bring workplace loos into the 21st century.

Back in 2003 when the TUC first launched its Gotta Go campaign, research revealed that across the UK many workers had no access to toilets or had to use dirty, poorly maintained ones. Others were docked pay for needing to use the loo, and had to ask if they could be excused to spend a penny. Six years on it seems the situation has barely changed.

A new TUC report – Give Us a (Loo) Break – published today to coincide with international women’s day, says that toilet breaks are not a luxury, but a basic human need, and employers who don’t provide staff with toilet facilities are breaking the law. It finds examples of staff having to put their hands up to use the toilet, record the number of times they nip to the loo each day or travel a mile to pee.

The TUC report is critical of employers who still believe that employees should go to the loo in their own time. Others plan work schedules that take no account of toilet breaks or allow a work culture to develop where use of the toilet whenever a worker requires it is frowned upon.

Give Us a (Loo) Break says that some workers have no easy access to the toilet – it notes a female firefighter who had to change her tampons in the back of a fire engine while her male colleagues stood guard outside. As a result of union pressure, a number of brigades have now introduced mobile welfare vehicles which have separate women and men’s toilets.

Other staff are based in workplaces where the toilets are closed at night, or have given up their own time and come in at the weekend to replenish the soap and paper towels in their poorly stocked loos.

Not being able to use the toilet when nature calls can cause real health problems warns the report. Conditions including digestive and urinary tract problems can develop into more serious health issues, and individuals on certain medications may need to go more often than usual.

Working in the cold can be another cause of more frequent loo use, and women who are menstruating, pregnant or menopausal need to take a trip to the toilet more often than they would normally. Similarly, call centre workers are encouraged to drink lots of water to limit the strain on their voices, but discouraged from taking too many toilet breaks, says the report.

TUC Deputy General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: ‘Employers shouldn’t be mean and penny pinching over their employees’ need to use the loo. They should trust staff and let them take a few minutes away from their work if they need to go.

‘Dickensian attitudes to toilet breaks have no place in the modern workplace. Employees should be free to go to the toilet in work time, and not have to raise their hands for permission as if they were back in school, or have their employers keep notes on how long or how often they go for. And when staff do get the loo, they have the right to expect clean, well-ventilated facilities.’

Recent examples uncovered by the TUC of poor employer attitudes to toilet breaks include:

  • Andy works for a housing organisation in Essex and is one of a number of caretakers responsible for several tower blocks in the Southend area. Although they have access to handwashing wipes and water in each of the blocks, the nearest toilet facilities are around a mile away – quite a trek if they’re caught short, especially as they don’t all take cars to work. Andy says he and his colleagues have learnt how to cope with the situation but that it’s far from ideal as they now need to factor toilet breaks into their routines. (In the past, caretakers tended to live in the blocks they looked after so were able to simply nip home each time they needed the loo.) The caretakers are hoping their employer can be persuaded to install a mini kitchen and toilet in one of the blocks so that going to the toilet stops being quite the mission it currently is.
  • Sally is a traffic warden employed by a local authority in the North West. Every time she wants to go to the toilet she has to inform her base and record it in her pocket book. Not unreasonably, Sally isn’t happy that the number of times she uses the toilet are being recorded and believes that the wardens should be able to run to the loo whenever they need to. She says that as a more mature lady, she sometimes needs to use the toilet quite frequently and is embarrassed that her colleagues not only know this but also see it as a source of amusement. When they’re out and about the traffic wardens are only meant to use the toilets in council or other public buildings, and Sally says this can cause real problems, especially on a Sunday when all the council buildings are closed.
  • Sara works for a leading supermarket chain in the East Midlands and says the checkout assistants are not supposed to go to the toilet during their four hour shifts. If they do ask to go, there’s no sense of urgency from the supervisors and they often walk off and take a while to return. She says one of her colleagues who was bursting to go got very distressed and nearly wet herself it took so long for someone to relieve her. She says that at the supermarket there is a culture of ignoring the requests of checkout staff who don’t have the kind of access to the loo that most employees take for granted. Sara says she’s worked in places where toilet breaks were never questioned and this is the first place she’s worked where staff feel like they are actually chained to the checkouts.

Give Us a (Loo) Break says better toilet facilities for UK employees will only come about if:

  • the Health and Safety Executive and local authority inspectors ensure that employers are complying with their obligations under UK safety laws and are providing suitable, sufficient and accessible toilets and washing facilities that are clean, well ventilated, lit and stocked with soap and towels; and,
  • the law is changed so that employees can go to the toilet whenever they need to – so long as they are not endangering the safety of their colleagues, and in work rather than their own time.


Give Us a (Loo) Break is available at http://www.tuc.org.uk/extras/loobreaksguidance.doc