Workers at the Jim Beam Distillery have backed the company down from its policy that restricted toilet breaks for workers on the bottling line at its Bullitt County, Ky., bourbon distillery. The workers and union there had been challenging the year-old policy since its inception.

The Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had cited Jim Beam Distillery for “unreasonably restricting the use of the bathroom.” At the citation hearing, workers testified that some had urinated on themselves and that others were wearing protective undergarments to avoid expected discipline for leaving the line.

Original federal OSHA regulations set in 1970 only required that employers furnish toilet facilities in workplaces. It thought that if employers had to furnish facilities, it would be obvious to them that workers had the right to use those facilities. Not so! Worker complaints forced the federal OSHA to issue new guidelines in 1998 giving workers access to toilets.

It was about time for those in charge at Jim Beam Distillery in Bardstown to make this accommodation for their workers. The issue is a simple matter of respect and dignity.

“This was a victory for employees all over the country,” said Jo Anne Kelley, president of the 248-member United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) local. “If this standard had been overturned or changed, it would have affected all workers, not just Jim Beam.”

Kelley attributes the victory to the pressure of public opinion. “The UFCW helped us spread our story worldwide. Jim Beam became the butt of every pee joke there is, including one Jay Leno told,” she said.

“The company has put us through some bad and demoralizing times,” Kelley continued, adding that management just went too far. “I’m cautiously optimistic about their change of heart. I want to see the details first.”

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org

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