Starbucks is installing boxes for safe disposal of syringes in the bathrooms of certain locations, following workers’ reports of discarded needles and sometimes concerning conditions.
The coffee giant is exploring remedies after employees expressed fears about being pricked by uncapped needles and experiencing related health risks. Starbucks is testing solutions, including installing sharps-disposal boxes, using heavier-duty trash bags to prevent needle pokes, and removing trash cans from certain bathrooms.
“These societal issues affect us all and can sometimes place our partners (employees) in scary situations, which is why we have protocols and resources in place to ensure our partners are out of harm’s way,” Starbucks representative Reggie Borges told Business Insider.
As of Wednesday, more than 3,700 people have signed a petition on Coworker.org, calling for Starbucks to place needle-disposal boxes in high-risk bathrooms.
“My coworkers and I had all experienced needles left behind in the bathroom, store, and even in our drive-thru,” said one person who signed the petition after working at a Starbucks location in Lynnwood, Washington, for three years. The three Starbucks employees who spoke with Business Insider for this article asked to either remain anonymous or to be referred to by only their first name, in order to speak frankly.
“My primary fear when I worked there would be taking out the bathroom garbages,” the former employee, who quit in 2018, told Business Insider. “I was terrified that if I went to take the bag out, I would get poked by a needle I didn’t know was there.”
Bathrooms as a battleground
Starbucks trains employees on how to safely deal with hypodermic needles. According to the company, any employee who feels unsafe performing a task is encouraged to speak with his or her manager and will not be made to perform the action.
“I can’t emphasize enough that if our partners are ever in a position where they don’t feel comfortable completing a task, they are empowered to remove themselves from the situation and alert their manager, ” Borges said. “As we always do, we are constantly evaluating our processes and listening to partner feedback of ways we can be better.”
However, some workers said that in the fast-paced workplace, policies are sometimes ignored, and inadvertent needle pricks remain a problem.
In October, three Starbucks employees in Seattle told local news that they encountered hypodermic needles on the job nearly every day. They said they had to take antiviral medications to protect themselves from HIV and hepatitis.
Following the incident, Starbucks began installing sharps boxes in certain Seattle locations. Sharps boxes are containers that allow people to safely discard needles, syringes, and lancets that might otherwise pierce a trash bag and poke workers.
While not every Starbucks location has the same issues, baristas across the US have expressed concerns about needles and other disturbing materials found in bathrooms — a common problem in the restaurant industry.
A Starbucks employee named Jamie, from the Twin Cities area in Minnesota, said she has found an array of worrisome items in bathrooms over the last 13 years, some of which she has provided photos of for this story.
According to Jamie, she and other coworkers have encountered drugs, alcohol bottles, blood on floors and walls, condoms and condom wrappers, and needles (capped and uncapped) on floors and in the trash.
The issues surrounding baristas who deal with syringe disposal and needle pricks are symptomatic of a problem that extends far beyond Starbucks.
In a study led by Brett Wolfson-Stofko for New York University’s Center for Drug Use and HIV Research, 58% of the 86 New York City business managers surveyed said they had encountered drug use in their businesses’ bathrooms. Another Center for Drug Use and HIV Research study of 15 service-industry workers found that a significant majority had encountered drug use, syringes, or both in bathrooms while on the job.
Wolfson-Stofko told Business Insider that employees he interviewed expressed concerns about being pricked by needles or having customers injure themselves. People who are inadvertently pricked by needles often pay hundreds of dollars out of pocket for emergency-room visits, tests, and medication.
“They’re concerned about their health,” Wolfson-Stofko said of the workers surveyed. “They’re concerned about their customers’ health.”
According to Wolfson-Stofko, installing sharps containers is one of the first things that businesses can do to keep workers safe and help them avoid contact with improperly discarded syringes. Wolfson-Stofko also suggested that companies can support in-store workers by providing training on how to deal with overdosing customers and supporting the installation of supervised injection facilities in their community.
Are open-bathroom policies to blame?
Starbucks is in a unique position because, unlike many other chains, its bathrooms are not for paying customers only. In May, Starbucks announced plans to open up its bathrooms to everyone, sparking some concerns about whether doing so could make the stores less safe.
“I think the bathroom policy has definitely changed the store’s environment,” one manager who works at a Starbucks location in Southern California told Business Insider. “It’s great that Starbucks wants to try and include everyone, but that means that they include absolutely everyone.”
According to the manager, workers have been forced to close down the location’s restrooms a number of times after finding drugs, needles, or blood. Despite workers’ care in cleaning bathrooms, at least one worker was pricked by a stashed needle, the manager said.
However, other employees said they felt that the issues predated the new bathroom policy.
According to Wolfson-Stofko, there has been minimal research into how Starbucks’ new policy may have impacted bathrooms’ safety. More generally, he said that most bathroom policies — such as keeping doors locked or providing unlock codes on receipts — simply give workers an “illusion of control.”
“Even before Starbucks said anyone could use the bathroom, that was not deterring people who would inject drugs,” Wolfson-Stofko said.
The opioid epidemic continues to be a major issue across the country. More than 70,000 people died because of drug overdoses in the US in 2017, up 9.6% from 2016, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Wolfson-Stofko said Starbucks’ efforts could help lead other companies to more directly address improperly discarded needles and worker safety. Seeing such a large company take action, he said, “will hopefully encourage other businesses to take employees’ concerns seriously.”
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