Guest Column - February 2010
Find a printable version here

Restrooms & Locker Rooms

Coming Clean in the Restroom
How Well-Maintained Restrooms Encourage Hand-Washing

By Jon Dommisse

By their very nature, public restrooms are havens for germs. So when you factor in the host of germs being passed around within recreational facilities where people are constantly touching equipment—from dumbbells to water fountains—it's clear to see how recreational facilities' restrooms easily become germ breeding grounds.

Over the past year, Americans have gained a heightened sensitivity to the spread of germs largely due to the H1N1 virus. And with annual cold and flu season in full swing, concerns over germs continue: Research published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine found that 63 percent of gym equipment carries the cold-causing rhinovirus.

We've all heard medical experts say the best way to protect yourself against contracting such viruses is to frequently wash your hands with soap and water, particularly after coughing or sneezing, using the restroom, and before and after eating. To see if the H1N1 virus has impacted Americans' hand-washing behavior, we surveyed a representative cross-section of the American population about their hand-washing habits in public facilities. Some findings include:

  • 54 percent said they "wash their hands no more nor less frequently" in public restrooms since the H1N1 virus emerged.
  • 87 percent said they washed their hands with soap and water after using public bathrooms, but other responses indicated that some may have exaggerated how often they actually did the job correctly. For instance, 55 percent also admitted they have on occasion just rinsed their hands before leaving a public restroom.
  • 68 percent of parents said they believed their school-age children wash their hands after using the restroom. If that is accurate, it still leaves one in three children walking around with contaminated hands.

With the ongoing threat of a serious infection like H1N1, why are so many people dropping the ball when it comes to hand hygiene? According to the survey, many cited the quality and condition of public restrooms.

When respondents were asked why they did not wash their hands before leaving a public restroom, they complained of nonworking sinks and unclean or crowded wash areas. Some, however, admitted that they simply didn't feel the need to wash—although 28 percent of them said they used a hand sanitizer instead. The primary reason respondents cited for not using soap, or rinsing only with water, was that the soap dispensers were empty.

Recreational facility owners and managers can help encourage hand-washing by continuing to improve their restrooms so people feel comfortable using their facilities. In addition to encouraging frequent hand-washing for staff, members and patrons, managers need to ensure their facilities are regularly cleaned and sanitized.

For many, there is a direct link between restroom appearance and hand-washing behavior. Just as the cleanliness, design and attractiveness of a restroom can influence a first impression of a health club, gym or waterpark, well-designed and maintained restrooms can help encourage use. Members are keenly aware of restroom and locker room environments—the cleanliness, privacy, functionality and condition can all affect their perceptions and overall experience.

There are a variety of strategies and products to consider in restroom design. These approaches not only encourage hand-washing, they provide facility owners other benefits, too: