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Safety In Public Restrooms
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Safety In Public Restrooms

Public restrooms are a great convenience for customers. However, they also can be insecure and dangerous if not well managed. Vandals damage them. Homeless people use them for bathing. Drug abusers buy, sell and consume drugs in them. Violent criminals commit robbery, rape, assault and battery in them. Safety in public restrooms requires trade-offs between convenience and security. Location, lighting, entryways and locks, video surveillance and alternative designs can contribute to security problems – or alleviate them. Special considerations for children need to be taken into account when they are going into public restrooms on their own.


Public restrooms should not be in out-of-the-way places where people must pass through long corridors to reach the restrooms. They should be in high-visibility places where customers and employees can see them. Such locations increase convenience as well as security.

When designing new facilities, planners can place restrooms in secure (and convenient) locations. In existing facilities, it may be impossible to move restrooms. But managers can improve security in other ways:

If there are doors to the corridors leading to the restrooms, then remove the doors, if possible; if not possible, add windows to the doors.

Add windows to the walls of the corridor, making the corridor and the outside of the restrooms visible from other rooms.

Add mirrors in the hallways to increase visibility and eliminate blind spots.

Good lighting and light-colored paint will make the corridor cheery, or at least less dark and gloomy.

There are three ways to use restroom doors to control access to restrooms: Locked doors, unlocked doors and no doors.

When management controls access to restrooms by locking the doors, customers must obtain keys or passcodes to use the restroom. The restrooms are less convenient but may be more secure. The process of obtaining a key or passcode may discourage criminals from using those restrooms for criminal behavior.

There are several options for locking restroom doors and providing access: keys, keypads, tokens, and remotely-operated locks. Each has pros and cons.

Keyed locks

A customer who needs access must borrow a key. There are advantages: Locks and keys are easy and inexpensive to install; and customers easily accept this system. And there are disadvantages: It takes time for a manager or clerk to give the key to a customer and to retrieve it. That may not be a problem when the store is not busy, but it can be difficult to manage when many people need to use the restroom. Another disadvantage is that keys get lost or stolen and then managers must replace the keys or the locks. And, there are hygiene concerns: people using the restroom also handle the keys and may spread germs.


It may be easier for a clerk to tell a customer the combination than to hand out a key. And there is no need to retrieve the key. However, customers may tell others the code, so soon everyone knows. Management will need to change the code regularly (which is easier and less costly than changing locks or making new keys). Also, it is possible that some people will have difficulty remembering the code, so staff may need to be ready to open the door for them.

Token-operated locks

When customers ask for access to the restroom, staff give them tokens, like coins, that unlock the door. Each coin is usable only once, until management empties the locks. There are no codes to issue or keys to pass out and retrieve, or to get passed around or lost or stolen; and hygiene concerns are reduced.

Remotely-Operated Locks

Remote (electric) locks are convenient for customers and staff. When a customer requests access to the restroom, staff member presses a button to unlock the door for a brief time (maybe one minute). There are no keys to lose or codes to remember or tokens to empty periodically.

Unlocked doors/no doors

Locked doors have pros and cons. If the cons are greater than the pros, unlocked doors, or door-less entry may be good choices.

In some facilities, the restrooms’ doors are unlocked, or there are no doors (customers freely enter and exit through a vestibule).

Either provides maximum convenience as well as deterrence to criminal behavior. Customers need not wait for a key or passcode and muggers or vandals cannot commit crimes in private when someone may walk in and witness them in the act. Also, management need not worry about lost keys or forgotten passcodes.

Where there is no door, the vestibule walls block people from seeing into the restroom from outside. Also, there is no door to block sounds from inside the restroom getting out. So, people outside the restroom can easily hear a fight or calls for help. There may be one more benefit to the no-door restroom: Without doors, there are no handles or knobs to spread disease and germs.

Facility managers must choose restroom access by considering the level of risk in the facility as well as the balance between security and convenience. But restroom access is not the only concern. Managers must also consider surveillance and may want to consider alternative restroom designs.

Video surveillance

Of course, it is not acceptable to place video cameras in restrooms. But they can be placed in corridors and other areas outside the restrooms. Video is useful when investigating incidents. And people monitoring live cameras can spot suspicious activity outside the restrooms. Also, people monitoring cameras (perhaps paired with intercoms) could operate remotely-operated locks more securely, waiting until the customers are at the restroom doors to open them.

Alternative designs

Some places are providing unisex restrooms (instead of sex-specific) and handwashing facilities outside the restrooms. Unisex restrooms may be more secure because they are smaller (one user at a time) and lockable, making them less likely to attract criminals. Handwashing stations, being in the open, are unlocked and observable, deterring criminal acts in those areas.

Public restrooms are convenient. Unfortunately, that convenience can come with a cost: lack of security. But there are ways to maximize convenience while minimizing risks. Once managers have determined the risk levels, they can decide on security measures balanced with necessary convenience and privacy. Security measures include restroom location and access (doors and locks), surveillance (of the restrooms and the areas around them), and designs (traditional single-sex or unisex). Careful security measures can greatly reduce or eliminate vandalism, violent crimes and nonviolent crimes such as drug use in public restrooms.


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