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Security of Public Restrooms

The Problem


Most organizations provide public restrooms (also called public washrooms or public toilets) for use by their customers. Having a public restroom provides a convenience for customers and is often required by law for certain types of businesses (food service establishments, for example.)


Public restrooms can create security problems if they are not effectively managed. In many locations, restrooms are tagged with graffiti or vandalized on an almost daily basis. In urban areas, homeless people often use public restrooms as bathhouses, and you can sometimes walk into a restroom to see a fully naked person taking a sponge bath using the sink. Public restrooms are often also used as a place to sell or consume illegal drugs.


More serious crimes, such as robberies or sexual assaults, can also be committed in public restrooms. Sometimes, an attacker will drag his victim into public restroom before carrying out his attack.


Within this Security Tip, we will provide some ideas on how public restrooms can be made safer and more secure.


Restroom Location


Traditionally, not much thought has been given to security when deciding where to locate public restrooms. They are often placed in out of the way locations so that they do not consume valuable floor space that can be used for other purposes. Often times, it is necessary to travel down a long corridor and pass through several doors before finally reaching the restroom.


For good security, restrooms should be placed in highly-visible locations so that their entrances can be directly observed by employees and other customers. When designing a new facility, security as well as customer convenience should be considered when planning the locations of public restrooms.


For existing facilities, it may not be practical to relocate existing restrooms. However, there are several things that can be done to allow better direct visual observation of restroom areas:


  • When practical, add windows in the walls of the corridors that lead to restroom areas to permit observation from adjoining rooms.


  • Add windows in all doors that provide access to the restroom corridor.


  • Add full-height mirrors along walls to permit better observation of the restroom corridor and to minimize blind spots.


  • Paint restroom corridor walls a light color and provide an adequate level of lighting so that the corridor is bright and cheerful rather than dark and dingy.


Restroom Doors


There are two philosophies on providing doors to restrooms. One philosophy says that restrooms should have lockable exterior doors so that access to these rooms can be controlled. The theory is that bad guys will be less likely to use the restrooms to commit improper acts if they have to go through the process of obtaining a key or code in order to gain access.


The other philosophy says that exterior restroom doors should be left completely unlocked. This provides maximum convenience for customers, and also deprives bad guys of the privacy that they may need to carry out their criminal act. For example, a graffiti artist may be less likely to tag a wall in a restroom if he thinks someone may walk in on him and catch him committing the act.


An expanded version of the "leave it unlocked" philosophy is the "doorless" restroom concept which calls for the elimination of the exterior restroom doors entirely. Using this concept, a vestibule entry is used at the entrance to the restroom. This allows people to walk freely in and out of the restroom without passing through a door.


The vestibule walls provide visual screening to prevent people from looking in to the restroom from the outside. Because there is no door, sounds can freely travel outside of the restroom. Supporters of this concept feel that this is a security benefit as the screams of someone being attacked can be better heard when there is no door to block the sound. Supporters also claim that eliminating restroom doors can improve hygiene by eliminating the spread of germs and disease on the door handles.


The decision of whether or not to use a lockable restroom door needs to be made on a case-by-case basis depending on the level of security risk at your specific facility. A proper balance between security and customer convenience needs to be achieved or the situation will prove to be unworkable over the long-term.


Options for Controlling Access


If a decision is made to use lockable doors, there are several options available for controlling access:


Keyed Locks


The most common solution is to use a key-operated lock on restroom doors and to temporarily loan keys to customers who need access. The advantages of this option is that it is quick and inexpensive to implement, and readily accepted by customers. The disadvantage of this option is that employees need to take time to hand the key out and retrieve it from customers.


This is manageable when the restrooms are only used a few times a day, but can be a real hassle if dozens of people per hour are asking for a key. In many cases, employees get tired of handing out the key, and hang it on the wall or leave it lying on the counter so customers can help themselves. This largely defeats the purpose of locking the restroom in the first place.


Restroom keys frequently get lost or stolen, and this requires replacement of keys and periodic rekeying of the locks. There are also hygiene issues associated with passing around a key and key fob that is regularly handled by people going to the toilet. This is of particular concern when the people handling the key are also handling food, such as in a food service establishment.


Keypad Locks


Another popular option is to use keypad locks on restroom doors, and to give the keypad code out to customers who request to use the restrooms. Giving a code to a customer is more convenient than handing out a key, as the employee doesn’t have to interrupt what he or she is doing to go get the key. Some businesses print the restroom code on the bottom of the customer’s receipt so that it is automatically given to paying customers.


The downside of keypad locks is that codes can be passed from person to person and often the whole community will soon know the code. To alleviate this weakness requires regular changing of the code. However, it is much quicker and less expensive to change a code on a keypad lock than it is to rekey a keyed lock and issue new keys.


Some users, particularly the elderly, may have difficulty in operating a keypad lock, so employees should be willing to personally unlock the door for customers they think may have a problem.


Token Operated Locks


Token-operated locks are a throwback from the old “pay toilet” days, but still can be an effective way to manage public restroom doors. A special token-operated lock is installed on each restroom door. This lock requires the use of a metallic token, approximately the size of a quarter. Tokens are handed out to customers who request to use the restroom. The locks are periodically emptied, allowing the tokens to be reused. The benefits of this system are that there are no keys or codes to be issued, and that unlike a code, a token can only be used once by a customer.

Remotely-Operated Locks


This requires installing electric lock hardware on each restroom door, and providing remote door release buttons at each customer service location. When a customer needs to use the restroom, an employee would simply press a button which would cause the restroom door to unlock for a specific time period (60 to 120 seconds). The benefit of this system is that there are no keys, codes, or tokens to worry about. The remotely-operated lock system is also very convenient for customers.


Using Video Surveillance Cameras


Video surveillance cameras can be used to view and record activity in restroom corridors and other areas leading up to or adjacent to the restrooms. Recorded video can be useful in investigating security incidents, and cameras that are viewed live can be used to detect suspicious activity occurring around the restrooms. Cameras can also be used in conjunction with an intercom system and remotely-operated locks to allow the unlocking of doors only when the customer is actually standing outside of the restroom.


We do not recommend the installation of cameras in the restrooms themselves. While some facilities have done this, and claim that cameras are positioned in such a way that they cannot observe "private areas" of people in the restrooms, we feel that this concept is very troubling and loaded with potential problems. In addition to raising privacy issues, it is likely to create public relations nightmares and could possibly place the organization using the cameras in a position of legal liability.


Alternative Restroom Designs


One trend in public restroom design is to provide unisex toilets rather than sex-specific toilets, and to provide hand washing facilities located in a common area outside of the toilets. This is done to increase toilet availability and to achieve better “potty parity” between the sexes. The hand washing facilities (sinks, mirrors, and trash containers) are typically placed in an open, unlocked area just outside of the toilets. Both sexes use the same hand washing area.


This design concept provides security benefits because: 1) the lockable toilet rooms are smaller and much less attractive as a place to commit crimes; and 2) the exposed nature of the hand washing area makes it far less likely that improper activity will occur in this area.



If you have questions about any of the topics mentioned above, or need help in improving security at your public restrooms, please contact us.

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