A Metrobus starts its route at Friendship Heights. (Luz Lazo/Washington Post)

When bus drivers don’t have access to restrooms while on duty, they often have no choice but to go on the bus, a top transit union leader told the National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday.

“Urinating on a bus is something we deal with on a regular basis,” said James Madaras, chief safety officer at Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents most Metro train and bus operators. He was speaking on a panel about Metro’s organizational culture during the second day of NTSB public hearings on Metro’s Jan. 12 fatal smoke incident.

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The union is in a constant battle with Metro to make sure that drivers have sufficient facilities available to them, said Madaras, saying drivers shouldn’t have to fear disciplinary action for having a bladder accident.

“There are not sufficient bathroom locations for the operators to be able to relieve themselves in a dignified manner,” Madaras said, responding to an NTSB official who suggested that bus driver urination on buses is a safety issue. “Some operators don’t have the facilities to use. Are you going to discipline a person for urinating when there is no facility for them to go?  What are we supposed to do?”

Access to bathroom breaks and facilities is a widespread problem among bus drivers across the country. Bus operators in the District, Las Vegas and Seattle have voiced concern in recent years about the impact of limited restroom breaks and its affect on their health and jobs.

Last year, the state of Washington fined Seattle’s King County Metro Transit $3,500 for not providing drivers enough restroom resources and for disciplining drivers who were late after visiting bathrooms.  The state’s Department of Labor investigation found that some drivers had to resort to wearing diapers.

Transit systems routinely replace urine-soiled driver seats, said D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who recently sent a letter to Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez requesting a federal investigation into how to improve the availability of restrooms for public transit workers.

“A recurring problem that has been brought to my attention and other members of Congress is the astonishing absence of access to restrooms or breaks for bus drivers,” Norton, who has received complaints from local drivers, wrote in the letter to Perez. “We believe that this widespread situation warrants the attention of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).”

Norton and transit union leaders say they the problem can pose safety risks for drivers and some have developed conditions such as urinary infections, dehydration and fatigue.  Sometimes drivers try to avoid the problem by limiting their water intake, union officials say.

Norton said the federal government should have role in taking action to remedy the problem because transit agencies use federal funding.

We have asked Metro about their bathroom policy. This post will be updated when we hear back.

Update, 7 p.m.:

A Metro spokeswoman said Metrobus drivers have access to restroom facilities on “virtually every trip,” noting that more than 90 percent of Metrobus routes serve a Metro station where an employee restroom is available. Several bus stations also have employee restrooms, spokeswoman Morgan Dye said.

Additionally, “in an emergency, any bus operator can simply notify the Bus Operations Control Center and secure the bus to use any available facility along a given route,” Dye said.

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