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Designing Restrooms to Prevent the Spread of Germs

According to the American Restroom Association, “An adequately designed public toilet facility improves the experience of both those who operate the facilities and those who use them.

Proper design reduces queuing and misuse and lowers initial and recurring costs.” An adequately designed public restroom also minimizes hand contact and is easy to clean, effectively preventing the spread of germs and improving the perception of cleanliness. Here are 14 things to consider when designing a restroom to avoid the spread of germs.


1. Install automatic flush valves on toilets and urinals

Sensor-operated flush valves, which are motion-activated, prevent users from touching flush handles, which could harbor bacteria and other germs. Not only do automatic flush valves work to prevent the spread of germs, they also are programmed to supply a predetermined quantity of water, thus reducing water consumption. 


2. Install hooks on the backs of stall doors

It’s common for public restroom users to have their hands full with items such as coats, shopping bags, tote bags, and purses. Providing adequate hooks on the backs of stall doors allows these items to be hung, thus ensuring they don’t become contaminated by being set on dirty and, potentially, wet floors. 


3. Install enclosed toilet paper dispensers

Enclosed dispensers provide a barrier against moisture and germs, keeping the toilet paper virtually sterile. However, the enclosed dispenser itself harbors germs that would otherwise be on the toilet paper, especially germs spread via the spray created by flushing lidless toilets. Therefore, it’s important that dispensers be routinely cleaned and that restroom users touch them as little as possible. 


4. Install toilet seat covers 

According to “What Can You Catch in Restrooms,”an article published by WebMD, toilet seats are not known for harboring germs: “… the toilet seat is not a common vehicle for transmitting infections to humans. Many disease-causing organisms can survive for only a short time on the surface of the seat, and for an infection to occur, the germs would have to be transferred … which is possible but very unlikely.” So, it may seem that disposable toilet seat covers are more of an added expense than a necessity. However, consider this. Women often get toilet seats wet when squatting over them, so providing toilet seat covers encourages sitting, reducing the contamination of squatting. Also, users who prefer to sit often line toilet seats with toilet paper, so providing toilet seat covers reduces waste. 


5. Use touch-free faucets

Infection-causing germs are readily spread on high-touch surfaces, like faucet handles. According to an article titled “Cold and Flu Viruses: How Long Can They Live Outside the Body?” published by Mayo Clinic, “Cold and flu virus-laden droplets may remain infectious for several hours, depending on where they fall. Viruses remain active longer on stainless steel, plastic, and similar hard surfaces than on fabric and other soft surfaces.”3 The article adds that it is possible to catch an active virus after handling an object upon which an infected person recently coughed or sneezed. 

Sensor-operated faucets, which are motion-activated, prevent users from contacting faucet handles, thereby eliminating one high-touch surface on which germs can be spread.

6. Install deeper sinks with offset drains

Bacteria live in sink drainpipes, putting them in close proximity to restroom visitors. Researchers at the University of Virginia found that bacteria can colonize a sink’s P-trap as a biofilm that can climb up the drain. During faucet operation, the bacteria spread to surrounding areas via droplet dispersion.4 

To prevent the spread of germs, install sinks designed to get water down the drain quickly with as little splashing as possible. Deeper sinks with offset drains are ideal, as they can help prevent contaminated water from splashing from within the drain, thereby keeping germs away from sink users. 

7. Use touch-free soap dispensers

Sensor-operated, motion-activated soap dispensers prevent users from spreading germs by eliminating the need to touch the surface. Choose one that dispenses foam, which rinses more easily than liquid soap. Also, choose one that has a window so that you can readily see when it’s time for a refill. 

8. Use touch-free paper towel dispensers

Experts recommend paper towel dispensers and air dryers when choosing between paper towel dispensers. The reason is that air dryers might pull bacteria from the air and spread them in hand-drying. In fact, in a new study from researchers at the University of Connecticut and Quinnipiac University, plates containing sugar that were exposed to hot air from a bathroom hand dryer (approximately 12 inches from the nozzle) for 30 seconds in three different buildings grew an average of 18, 24 and 60 colonies of bacteria per plate in each building. This is compared to plates containing sugar exposed to bathrooms where hand dryers were turned off, which grew an average of six colonies of bacteria in 18 hours.6 

Choosing sensor-operated, motion-activated paper towel dispensers prevents users from spreading germs by eliminating the need to touch their surfaces. Enabling users to dry their hands thoroughly means avoiding moisture-loving bacteria. 

9. Install shelves near handwashing stations

On the one hand, it could be argued that installing shelves near handwashing stations is installing one more surface to which bacteria and viruses can attach themselves, thereby increasing the threat of contamination. There is truth to this, which we will return to at the end of this section. On the other hand, shelves provide a place for restroom users to put their personal belongings without setting them on a wet sink or dirty floor. In addition, users can complete a thorough hand wash because they’re not juggling their belongings to avoid dropping them while simultaneously washing their hands. The key to preventing the spread of germs on shelves is to train staff to routinely sanitize them, just as they sanitize the enclosed toilet paper dispensers. 

10. Use touch-free waste receptacles

A person with clean hands should not have to touch a waste receptacle when disposing of used paper towels, so be sure to choose touch-free. There are several options, including flaps and sensor and foot pedal activated. Place waste receptacles next to the exit door so that, when pushing the door open, a user can use paper towels as a barrier between his/her clean hands and the door, depositing the paper towels in the receptacle once the door is open. Remember that, even if you use hand dryers, waste receptacles are still necessary to capture disposable items, such as diapers and feminine hygiene products. 

11. Use no doors

People who have washed their hands risk recontamination when they push open a restroom door to exit, based on the fact that people who haven’t washed their hands have pushed open the same door. Designing a restroom where users can exit without touching a surface reduces the spread of germs by minimizing hand contact, plus improves ventilation to discourage germ growth. A well-designed restroom with no doors has a vestibule entry preventing a direct line of sight to toilets, urinals or mirrors, thus protecting users’ privacy. 

 12. Install doors that push out

If your restrooms do or will have doors, hang them so that they swing out. This allows users to open doors with a push of a foot to the kickplate or the push of an elbow, eliminating hand-door contact and, therefore, effectively preventing the spread of germs. 

When choosing floor, wall, and ceiling materials for public restrooms, the primary consideration is that they must be durable and waterproof to facilitate cleaning.

Choosing impervious finishes means that finishes that harbor moisture, such as paint on walls and wood on floors, are avoided, which is good because moisture is a breeding ground for bacteria. 

14. Install an effective ventilation system

“Well-ventilated restrooms can significantly reduce the sense that a restroom is dirty. Ventilation also protects occupants from the misapplication of dangerous commercial cleaning products.” An effective ventilation system does more than give the appearance of clean restrooms—it keeps restrooms dry, thereby preventing mold growth on floors and walls. \

Designing public restrooms to prevent the spread of germs is not a difficult challenge, but it requires careful consideration of every surface to minimize hand contact and ensure easy cleanability. 

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