All in the Family

Ensuring Locker Rooms & Restrooms Are Fit for Everyone

By Stacy St. Clair

For years, Stacey Eisler heard the commotion outside her office at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Her work space was located near the men,s locker room, and she could hear mothers expressing their exasperation all day, every day.

The women stood outside the door yelling their sons' names over and over again. "Tyler? Tyler? Are you in there?" Their voices would sing that frustrated chorus for 15 minutes without respite. When that didn't work, the women resorted to tapping male patrons on the shoulder and asking them to check on their sons' well-being.

"I then realized the frustration in the minds of parents with children of different genders," said Eisler, the groundbreaking Y's deputy director. "It wasn't just mothers with their sons or fathers with daughters, but also parents who had both sons and daughters."

To remedy the situation, Eisler insisted the facility's 1999 renovation plans include a family locker room, which would reduce the logistical problems that arise when parents and their kids recreate together. Such facilities have become a godsend to both patrons with small children or older relatives in need of assistance.

Like most family locker rooms, the 92nd Street Y's facilities consist of a large open space equipped with private changing rooms. There are signs proclaiming it a co-ed area, as well as dedicated space outside the door for stroller parking.

"When you're bringing young children for an activity, it can be very stressful," Eisler said. "We want to make it as easy as possible. Everyone seems to really understand the concept. It's a great amenity that's also very convenient."

By creating the family locker room, as well as a changing area specifically for use by teenage girls, female patrons benefited greatly from the renovation. While facility managers always expected this group to reap the reward from additional locker-room options, they were pleasantly surprised to see men take advantage of the new design, too. Suddenly, more fathers participated in activities with their daughters because they could share a changing area with the young girls instead of sending them into the women's locker room unsupervised with the hope they'd be OK.

"The family locker room really solves a lot of problems for dad," Eisler said. "It has really helped dads take their daughters to swim lessons."


A Growing Family

The success of family locker rooms and bathrooms comes as no surprise to the American Restroom Association (ARA), which has long advocated their inclusion. The organization advocates such amenities—which they refer to as "companion care facilities"—because they help a wide variety of people: parents with small children, patrons with disabled relatives and elderly people who need spousal assistance.

They also address parents' uneasiness with the idea of sending their children into a locker room by themselves. No matter how different we wish the world could be, there's no denying that leaving a child alone in a locker room could lead to a terrible problem. Conversely, bringing a child of the opposite gender into a locker room could also make other patrons uncomfortable or create inappropriate interactions.

Family restrooms are so important to the ARA, the group constantly receives phone calls from people asking for "toilet mapping," a tool that shows travelers where they can find family restrooms or locker rooms across the United States. Unfortunately, the association doesn't have such a map, but it no doubt would fill a demand, according to Bob Brubaker, the association's program manager. No one likes to be confined to their house, but they need to have options if they decide to go out and enjoy themselves.

"The number of family restrooms is clearly growing," Brubaker said. "There are groups of people who are very concerned about privacy. They have problems using public toilets. A private, companion care facility is a good answer for them."

At the Westlake Recreation Center in suburban Cleveland, seniors have embraced the family locker rooms since the facility opened nearly a decade ago. The center features one large space with eight separate dressing-room-type spaces. Some of the rooms are shower areas with benches, while others have toilets. A few are handicap-accessible areas where patrons can just roll in with their wheelchairs and take showers.

The family area has become extremely popular with elderly patrons, who like the extra space and amenities such as handicap-accessible showers. One couple used the facilities for two weeks while their home bathroom was being remodeled. The man, who was wheelchair-bound, found it a convenient alternative to using the men's locker room.

"Many of our seniors use these locker rooms for the privacy factor," said Ann Hollows, the center's assistant manager. "It's a great option for them."

Facility managers have received some complaints from patrons about unruly children inside the family locker room. The center has addressed the concerns by prohibiting kids from entering the area unless they are accompanied by an adult.

At the Cleveland County YMCA in Norman, Okla., recreation managers are enjoying similar success with their new family locker room. After a 1996 renovation, the facility now has five locker rooms: one for adult women, one for adult men, one for young men ages 8 to 17, one for young girls ages 8 to 17 and one for families with children younger than 8.

The family area accommodates up to six broods at a time, and everything inside was designed with parents in mind. The door to the adjacent pool area, for example, requires patrons to punch in a key code before it can be opened. Such a security measure prevents little ones from running into the natatorium without their parents' knowledge.

"We've thought of everything," said Heather Cook, the marketing and public relations coordinator for the Cleveland County YMCA. "It helps families and it enhances the value of the YMCA membership for people."

Patrons consider the facilities so comfortable and conveniently located, some try to use them even when they don't have children with them. Their popularity fulfills a prophecy Cook made when the plans were first announced several years ago. She told patrons the facilities would change the way they thought about recreation—and she was right.

"Our members have been tickled with the results," she said. "It's important for families to get together and do things. We've made it so much easier for them to do that."


Special Extras

While the extra space and durable materials make family locker rooms and restrooms a welcomed addition to any recreation facility or park, there are a few amenities managers could add to make rooms even more comfortable for guests. Here are three must-haves for both patron convenience and your peace of mind:

Sunscreen

Much like you provide body wash and shampoo to locker room users, consider putting a tub of sunscreen lotion on the counter. This small offering will be a godsend to parents and make you an important player on the local public health scene.

It's no exaggeration to say the decision may very well help save lives. Experts say waterproof, high-SPF lotions serve as an invaluable strategy in the fight against skin cancer.

If a few vats of lotion aren't within your budget, consider purchasing a sunscreen dispenser. In addition to addressing a public-health concern, it will help your facility raise a few extra pennies.

Swim Diaper Dispensers

Most aquatic facilities require all non-potty-trained children to wear swim diapers, though they remain one of the most forgotten necessities. A family locker room dispenser will solve families' dilemmas, offer the facility a way to make a few dollars and help your aquatic facility in its fight against waterborne illnesses.

Swimsuit Water Extractors

While patrons should anticipate wet floors, the recreation world doesn't work that way. Nothing threatens locker rooms like excess water. Slick floors increase the chances of patrons slipping and hurting themselves. And as recreation managers know all too well in this litigation-happy time, injuries can result in legal (not to mention financial) nightmares.

However, safety isn't the only reason to keep your locker room floors dry. Wet surfaces can do serious damage to your locker room. They can cause rust, mildew, warping, wood delamination, peeling paint and corrosion. These conditions make your locker room unappealing to patrons and jeopardize the facility's overall health.

Swimsuit water extractors can remove up to 95 percent of a swimsuit's moisture in 10 seconds. The machines—which cost between $1,300 and $1,400—will keep soaked suits from dripping on the floor. They'll also play an important role in keeping lockers dry and order-free.



Meeting Needs

Following guidelines established by the Americans with Disabilities Act will get any design headed in the right direction. However, there are many other things to consider. Are the lockers deep enough to hold a diaper bag? Is there enough space in the changing area for both a wheelchair and a caregiver to maneuver?

Recreation managers also should consider creature comforts such as coat hooks, couches, televisions, etc. Basically, if you offer a service or amenity in your adult locker room, it's wise to provide the same services in your family facilities.

"Just like design is important in a regular restroom, it's important in a family-friendly facility as well," Brubaker said. "Some people like a family restroom to take care of medical needs. For example, having things like absorbent pads available is a good idea. People also want shelves—and ones where babies can't be changed."

The most important aspect of any family locker room and restroom is its convenience. If it's not centrally located or not spacious enough, families simply won't use it. For example, if your facility has an aquatic component, the family room must walk out onto the pool deck. Otherwise, parents will use the adult facilities rather than have their brood traipse through the building sopping wet.

"Location is critical," said Craig Bouck, president and CEO of Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture. "Make it as convenient as you can, so it doesn't look like a second thought. If you put it in the wrong place, it's going to be under-utilized."

Bouck advocates a cabana design for family locker rooms, meaning there's one large space with several private dressing stalls. He suggests using glass doors and signage so older patrons—ones not intimately familiar with the family-style facility—know to change in the changing room, not in common-space locker area.

It's important to make the common area as large and open as possible. Parents don't want nooks and crannies where their children can disappear from sight. The open area is important from a safety perspective, too, because thieves will find it difficult to break into lockers in plain view.

"You want to be able to see right down the middle of it," Bouck said. "We now make them with glass doors so that older folks don't get confused."


Privacy, Please

Experts say anecdotal evidence suggests that video voyeurism has increased dramatically in recent years because of the ease in which the devices can be hidden. Many cameras are now wireless or installed in cell phones, so they no longer sport the wires that made recorders easier to spot less than a decade ago. The images now can be transmitted directly to computers or recorded on drives that can be plugged directly into a television or USB port.

Locker rooms—especially family-style ones filled with children—can become prime targets for such atrocious acts. Luckily, recreation managers have the law on their side.

Nearly all 50 states consider illegal taping of a child a felony. At least 19 states currently classify video voyeurism against adults as a felony, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime. At least four others have bills pending. In order to cut down video voyeurism at your facility, consider the following:

Prohibit the use of cell phones in all locker rooms. Yes, it's a tad inconvenient, but it's worth the peace of mind knowing that no one is using their phones for illicit purposes.

Enforce the ban. Countless clubs prohibit the use of cell phones, but many patrons use them anyway for harmless chats. Encourage locker room attendants to (politely) crack down on innocent offenders. It'll send a message.

Post signage reminding patrons that camera use in the locker room is a crime. Implore patrons to report any suspicious activity.



Material World

When designing a family bathroom or locker room, it's also important to select materials just like you would any other bathroom or locker area. The fixtures and floors must be durable, graffiti-proof and water-resistant.

Experts recommend selecting solid surfaces so the staff can easily buff out scratches. It's also wise to install under-mounted sinks, which allow you to take a towel and wipe excess water into the sink because there's no raised lip and no loose piece of caulk around the edge that can be stained or become a maintenance problem.

In aquatic or showering facilities, select flooring that is clean, sanitary and slip-resistant. The floor should be able to tolerate constant exposure or water. Shower flooring also must be waterproof. Seamless systems are excellent options for preventing buildup in tiled floors. Some manufacturers even offer flooring with an anti-microbial additive that protects the floor from fungal staining, odor and inferior hygiene. In addition to custom convenience, a swimsuit water extractor is an economical and easy way to prevent excess water from hitting the floors and lockers.


Security

Locker rooms have become a popular place for thieves to strike, especially because patrons are usually yards away from their valuables at any given moment. While most facilities have signs abdicating any responsibility for lost or stolen articles, locker room thefts can damage users' confidence in the club and their attendance. It behooves all recreation managers to make the area as secure as possible—especially in companion locker rooms, where patrons' guards may be down because of the presence of so many young children. Again, IHRSA comes through with ways to improve security:

  • Front-desk staff should make eye contact with all entering and exiting patrons. The possibility of being identified is a powerful deterrent to would-be thieves.
  • Require that every guest complete a registration card. Once the card has been filled out, request (and photocopy) a photo ID, and check that the information on the documents matches. Document the time of the visit in case a theft occurs.
  • Have staff conduct frequent, random sweeps of locker rooms.
  • Remind patrons to lock their lockers and that valuable items shouldn't be brought into the club. Pay extra for heavy-duty locks, and discourage members from using combination locks, which are easier to pick than key-type locks. If you provide keys for lockers, put the keys on a wristband.
  • Ask patrons to report suspicious individuals to management. They may spot behavior that thieves wouldn't dare try in front of uniformed staff.
  • Membership tracking software can help identify thieves. When a theft occurs, study the roster and try to identify the possible perpetrators. Also, track when crimes occur and heighten locker room security during those times.
  • When designing or renovating locker rooms, install lockers at a 45-degree angle to the walls. This not only creates a spacious feel, it also eliminates thief-friendly hiding spots that perpendicular locker rows create.
  • Though it is illegal in many states to videotape inside locker rooms, some gym operators place cameras at locker room entrances and exits. The Cleveland County YMCA, for example, installed surveillance cameras in the main area of the family locker room to cut down on theft.


Sound the Alarm

In family-based facilities, it's also important to provide customers with a way to get help in an emergency. If a patron's child or disabled family member becomes ill or over-heated in the humid atmosphere of the locker room, there often isn't a way to contact anyone—and chances are they don't want to leave their loved one alone to run out and find help.

This potential problem can be easily solved with emergency alarms. These systems are like fire alarms, but they have long cords reaching to the ground in case the person has fallen and cannot get up. Another useful safety feature is a phone—either for general dialing or that connects directly to the front desk and emergency assistance. If you have the staff for it, experts recommend circulating an employee periodically through the locker rooms and restrooms. This enhances security, safety, customer service and sanitation, as this staffer can make sure to check that everything is as it should be.

"Through design," Bouck said, "you can take care of a lot of issues."


Chemical Reaction

Many people can be overwhelmed by excessive use of perfumes, colognes or other fragrances. For some people, however, these smells also pose a serious health threat. Chemical exposure can trigger blinding migraines, respiratory problems and dizziness. Facilities with family locker rooms need to be even more vigilant about the presence of chemicals because children are most likely to be harmed by exposure. As with many illnesses, children seem to be more sensitive to non-specific chemical reactions than adults, according to a recent Ohio State University study. There are several reasons that children seem more susceptible to chemical sensitivity than adults. Children's bodies do not have as many detoxifying enzymes as adult bodies, and children breathe more air per pound of body weight than do adults.

Here are some actions the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) suggests for minimizing chemical exposure:

  • Purchase cleaning products marked "without perfume." Don't be fooled by products listed as "unscented," as they still may contain a masking fragrance.
  • Avoid fabric softener and dryer sheets when laundering towels.
  • Remove scented candles, potpourri and aerosol room fresheners from locker rooms.
  • Replace real flowers with silk arrangements.
  • If the layout permits, designate a "spray-free" zone in locker rooms.
  • Provide employees and patrons with advance notice of activities such as painting, wallpapering, carpet shampooing and extermination.
  • Post gently-worded signs, especially in vanity areas, and put notices in the club's newsletter and handbook asking everyone to keep in mind that some people are sensitive to chemicals and fragrances.
  • Consider implementing a fragrance policy, such as, "Patrons are requested to refrain from using perfume, cologne and other fragrances for the comfort of others."


Adapt Your Facility

If you don't have the space or resources for a family locker room, it's important to stop and think about how your facility handles children in opposite-gender locker rooms. Many recreation managers grapple with this issue, struggling with questions like "how old is too old?" No one, for example, wants little boys running around unattended in the men's locker room, but others may worry about privacy issues if the boys show up in the women's room with their mothers. The same could be said for girls who visit facilities with their fathers.

Fortunately, the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) has a few tips for recreation centers and parks without family facilities:

Establish and enforce a policy. While it's up to you to determine which age limits work best in your community, IHRSA suggests a sample policy like this one used by a member: "Children 5 years of age and over are not allowed in the locker rooms of the opposite sex. Children 4 years of age and under may be in the locker room of the opposite sex only when under the direct supervision of a parent or responsible adult—and then only for the minimal time necessary. Under all circumstances, parents must be aware of the need to protect the privacy of others. Please see a Manager on Duty for suggestions on how to ease the transition at this age in a way that is comfortable for both you and your child."

Install a separate, full bathroom for families or others with special needs. This can also help accommodate the elderly and meet the Americans with Disabilities Act's accessibility standards. (For example, a woman with arthritis may need her husband's help changing her clothes.) If demand for this room is high, hold the key at the front desk so staff can ensure that only those who truly need to use the room have access.

Allow parents to change young children in your child care area. You might also want to consider offering free short-term babysitting (e.g., a 20-minute limit) while a child's opposite-gender parent showers or changes.

Consult a pediatrician or other physician when deciding on any age cut-off. Basing your policy on recommendations from local experts gives it credibility with patrons and offers you peace of mind.

Make staff members available to accompany children over the age limit into the gender-specific locker room. If you select this option, make sure to post signage around the facility so parents know this valuable service is available at their request.

If you don't set age limits, make sure you address the issue. Create awareness of this sensitive matter by posting signs in your locker rooming reading something like, "Parents: Bringing an opposite gender child into this locker room may cause discomfort to other members. Please use discretion."

Reconsider the family locker room. Yes, it might cost a little more. But you can't put a price on patron safety and comfort.



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