Trucking, toilets and wheelchairs (a World Toilet Day post)

Three people standing in front of a washbasin in a communal toilet, holding certificates saying "Loo of the Year 2016"Earlier today I came across an article announcing some research that had been done about British workers and their access to toilet breaks, or lack thereof, published by the trade union Unite. Thousands of workers do not have access to basic toilet facilities in their workplace, it says, with evidence of staff at high-street banks having to urinate in buckets and construction sites failing to provide toilets for female staff, assuming there are none. Bus drivers were sometimes denied toilet breaks for up to five hours and call centre staff told to log out (which, it appears, means they will not get paid) if they get up to use the toilet. The worst practices, the report says, are in “bus and lorry driving, construction, warehousing, agriculture and the banking and finance sector”. This is an incredibly varied group of occupations; agriculture is rather to be expected as workers are often out in the country where there are few buildings; others are micro-managed menial work, but truck drivers are among the less well-supervised of those, so why is it on the list?

Well, I work as a truck driver, and if you spend most of your driving life on the road, you are less likely to be unable to find a toilet for very long; motorways all have multiple service stations (except for those that are very short, which usually have one) and main roads have filling stations which are often more frequent, though they have fewer cubicles than a toilet block in a big service station. An urban delivery driver usually drives a vehicle which can easily fit into the average petrol station, many of which have toilets (not all, and some have closed due to vandalism or because the owners decide they do not want the expense, or want the extra space for shop use). However, if you spend a lot of time at depots, the situation varies. The worst offenders are bonded warehouses which store goods which are due to be put on an aeroplane or are subject to duties (e.g. alcohol); many of these have only recently stopped allowing drivers to use the warehouse toilets because it is supposedly not secure to escort drivers to them. This is a somewhat unconvincing explanation; often they also have offices which could be made available to drivers. Apparently, recently the Health and Safety Executive has issued guidelines that these warehouses must, in fact, allow drivers the use of their toilets. Many airport cargo stations do not have toilets available either, despite having plenty of space.

In the last 10 years or so, trucks have increasingly been fitted with trackers so that bosses know where a driver is at any given time, which allows them to nag a driver who has stopped unexpectedly or too long. While I have avoided these sorts of jobs like the plague, I must say I have never seen a supermarket delivery van or a waste collection truck in a filling station forecourt, and these are the only places outside their depots that have parking and toilets. In one job I was asked why I had stopped for 10 minutes at a particular junction outside Woodford in Essex, and when I told the fifty-something lady the reason (and not in excessive detail, just “I was in the loo”), she told me I should not tell such a thing to a lady. On another occasion I was trunking for a major parcel company which had a policy that drivers should not stop en route, ostensibly for security reasons, which I did, as I was unaware of what the toilets and refreshment facilities were like at their depot (it turned out to be quite satisfactory); when working for the Royal Mail last December, I had a manager interrogate me as to why I had stopped at Warwick Services on the way back from a trip to Coventry, and the reason was that the drivers’ toilets at Coventry were crowded and, if I remember rightly, not very clean. I had to give this guy lengthy explanations as to why a loo break might take longer than expected (e.g. having to clean up the loo before using it).

In the work I’m doing now, the boss doesn’t mind if I stop as long as I get there on time, and if I’m not going to, I’m expected to call ahead. Toilets at depots vary; in some places there are two toilets for all the drivers, though we are not expected to stop for long, while at others (typically the older ones) there are plenty. They are usually well-kept and it’s not that common to find one that stinks or where the seat is covered in urine. The job itself is stressful, with two or three middle-men between me and the company I’m ultimately working for and jobs not coming in until two or three hours before it starts, but not having to worry too much about finding decent loos takes some of the stress out of it.

Some of my disabled friends have far worse stress about using the toilet, of course. Most people know what a “disabled toilet” is, but don’t know that only certain types of disabled people can use one — those with good upper body strength who can transfer out of a wheelchair onto the loo and back again. They have those red cords so that, if they fall when transferring, they can get help, so if you ever see one tied up so that it doesn’t reach the floor, you should untie it and tell the management. People with other impairments, such as muscular dystrophy, often don’t have the strength to transfer themselves and require a hoist to lift them, and most public places don’t have them. There is a network of special toilets with hoists and adult-size changing tables, known as Changing Places, but currently there are only 1,203 in the whole of the UK. The upshot is that some people, particularly women, are having surgery to fit catheters (often at some risk to their own health), despite not being incontinent, so that they can relieve themselves without requiring a hoist and not have to take such as dehydrating themselves so they will not have to use the toilet when they are out for a few hours.

One of the worst tendencies in the treatment of disabled people in this country right now is the withholding of the care necessary to get from their wheelchair to the toilet and back, expecting them to use nappies although, as with those having the medical unnecessary surgery to fit catheters, they are not incontinent. The best known case involved Elaine McDonald, a former ballerina who challenged Westminster City Council’s decision to withdraw her overnight care visit and issue incontinence pads instead, but more recently a woman I know, who is both a paraplegic and an amputee and was forced out of a care home a few weeks ago after criticising the care she was receiving in Facebook (a story in its own right: care home managements indulging in revenge evictions), was told that when she moves into a home of her own in a few weeks’ time, she also will not be supplied with a hoist she can use herself (which exist; she has done her research) nor sufficient care time, but be expected to use nappies. She is in her 20s.

This obviously is causing her some distress, but so far the law does not seem to be on her side despite the obvious disadvantages — it’s undignified, it’s unnatural to anyone who has learned to control themselves which is most people above age two, it brings the risk of skin inflammation and breakdown which is particularly hazardous to a full-time wheelchair user, there is the likelihood of leaks (especially as nappies and pads supplied by public bodies are rarely of the best quality and absorbency) which falls to the disabled person to clean up — not to mention the added damage to some people’s already fragile mental health. Really, the cost to the public purse of providing a care visit every few hours so that a severely disabled person can use the toilet cannot be that great. It’s a disgrace in a well-developed country to be penny-pinching at the expense of disabled people’s health and dignity.

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