Dangerous bathroom design

Flu season is coming, so here are some photographs to highlight one of my pet peeves, bathroom design that promotes disease transmission.  I post with the hope that somebody with true influence over architects will someday link to this post.  My pet peeve: bathroom doors hinged in a way that require people to touch the handle or knob to exit. I’m sure there are fire code reasons why architects specify for this, but it’s strange (remote risk of fire vs real and daily risk of disease).  I designed a graphic to highlight the issue:

In other words, when you touch the handle, you will most likely pick up viruses and bacteria left by the people who didn’t wash their hands (and those people might be really sick).  Really: research has shown that door handles have more bacteria than (gasp) toilet seats.  But even if architects are required by law to hinge doors to pull in, I think all bathrooms should be equipped with signage like the above, with perhaps additional verbiage about using a paper towel or shirt to open the door to educate people who don’t normally think about such things (you should do this if you don’t already; photo).

Compounding the above problem is the fad of equipping bathrooms with only electric hand dryers (“Saves the environment!”).  Because cheap hand dryers take about 3 minutes to dry your hands, many people opt to just exit the bathroom without washing their hands.  Or at least guys opt out…I don’t hang out in women’s restrooms that often.  This means that the handle or knob is going to get a lot more use from hands that are coated in microbial nasties. (Somebody needs to compare bacterial counts on handles in paper-free and paper-provided bathrooms…let me know what you find.) Here’s a graphic I designed for the machines:


So: my plea to people in power is for doors to be hinged so that mere pushing (e.g., with shoulder) allows exiting.  And for paper towels to be provided.  Or, if that is too costly, then for installation of signage that truly informs bathroom users about bad bathroom design and what they can do about it.  If you work in a hospital and have both MRSA and immune-suppressed patients, you definitely need signage like this. It’s cheaper than installing a door handle sanitizer, I’d wager.

If you like the idea of signage but are worried about selling it at your institution, here is a article to send to your colleagues and staff. Signage makes a difference, but edgy signage makes more of a difference.

If the Bathroom Signage Committee at your workplace is packed with people averse to anything novel, don’t worry, you can do it yourself!  Just download the door signage and hand dryer signage files (PDFs), then print onto 4 x 6″ paper.  I recommend 3M’s removable adhesive labels (#6200), which are essentially Post-Its you feed into your inkjet or laser writer. I love these sheets for stealth stickering projects when I don’t want to permanently annoy people. Then, of course, you need to sneak the stickers into the bathrooms at your workplace.  If you place them carefully and all at once, people will assume somebody in charge mandated the change and they will have a better chance of staying up.  Good luck, and have fun.

NOTE: the signage above was installed at Swarthmore College.  They lasted about a week before they take down by order from above.  Now they are back to zero signage, and are promoting disease transmission. Hey, I tried!

Please share with your friends, folks.

6 thoughts on “Dangerous bathroom design

  1. Sal Bro

    Somebody needs to compare bacterial counts on handles in paper-free and paper-provided bathrooms…let me know what you find.

    I did a lit search a while ago on this topic when my workplace was discussing switching away from paper towels in bathrooms. I didn’t find studies on handles per se, but here’s a short review summarizing paper towels vs. air dryers, finding conflicting results among studies. It suggests that the myth of air dryers being bacterial concentrators may be outdated. I did also find Effects of 4 Hand-Drying Methods for Removing Bacteria From Washed Hands: A Randomized Trial that threw “spontaneous room air evaporation” into the mix after study participants had to muck a hand in a plastic bag full of soy broth and Micrococcus luteus (ew). They found no difference among spontaneous room air dry, mechanical air dry, and 2 types of paper towels in post-washing bacterial counts.

    A separate issue to consider is the level of hand chapping that can occur with a given drying method, since broken skin can harbor pathogens.

    For full disclosure, my preferred method of drying is spontaneous room air dry, both because I have sensitive skin and also for environmental reasons. But I’d hate to think I’m innoculating my coworkers with germies (I seem to be fine, myself), so if you find more info, please post.

  2. Joseph

    Aw, man, I don’t even want to think about the germs in public bathrooms! I am very clean and very fastidious, and when I use public bathrooms, I do my damnedest to not touch ANYTHING. Now I have to add door knobs to the list!

  3. Cyril Fox

    In the early 60s there was an article published in the British journal _Public Cleansing and Salvage_ (since renamed _Wastes Management_) on improved WC design.
    One of the key points was the use of foot pedals to operate all of the various controls: to open the door to the WC, open and lock the door to the cubicle, operate the flush valves, the sink valves, and finally to open the door to exit. All of the technology for this is incredibly simple, purely mechanical, and so obvious it should have been written into the building codes decades ago. Presumably one could also design a simple foot pedal to operate the mechanical lever on a paper towel dispenser.
    I also tend to believe that the absence of privacy in public WCs is a major contributor to poor sanitation. Few things are quite as unpleasant as being within intimate distance of a total stranger whist having a BM. Acoustical and olfactory privacy are nonexistent, making what little visual privacy exists irrelevant. After the performance, one wants to exit as rapidly as possible to avoid one’s face being paired with one’s sounds and smells, and if that means bypassing the sink, “so be it.”
    The obvious solution is to build lockable fully-private WCs with ferociously efficient ventilation systems, rather than “social WCs” as they presently exist, and put up signage such as “soap it now or eat it later” adjacent to the sinks. The risks of misuse can be controlled by having an attendant outside to ensure that only one person at a time goes into each unit (disabled folks with assistants get a pass), and having a sensitive smoke detector, and perhaps a few other non-invasive measures. Bottom line: treat people like civilised creatures and they will behave like civilised creatures.

  4. Scotto

    Aside from a hospital that has both MRSA and immune-suppressed patients, no one need worry about bathroom germs. Wipe a little feces on your wrist every day and keep the doctor (and coworkers) away.

    Really, build immunity not a germ free environment


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