A Helping Hand

Health specialists often cite handwashing as the most effective defense against the spread of infectious diseases. Still, studies have shown that as many as 50 percent of Americans do not wash their hands before leaving the washroom.

Schools can decrease the spread of disease within their walls by emphasizing proper handwashing practices early. At the same time, school planners must take care to provide facilities that function as part of the solution. Fulfilling this two-pronged objective will allow schools to function as intended, increasing the opportunity for students to learn by decreasing their incidence of illness.

Vulnerable ages Every parent knows that young children catch more colds than adults. Preschool children, especially, suffer a greater number of colds per year because they have not built up as much immunity as adults.

Children also tend to touch their mouths, noses and eyes more frequently, and be exposed to germs more readily than adults.

Several studies have demonstrated the positive effect of proper handwashing upon the health of children. Dr. Susan Longe studied 305 Detroit school children and found that those who washed their hands four times a day had 24 percent fewer sick days due to respiratory illness, and 51 percent fewer days lost because of stomach upset. A Purdue University study published in the Journal of Pediatric Health Care compared the effects of two different handwashing regimens within a university-sponsored childcare center. The group using the more vigorous program significantly reduced its incidents of colds.

How can facility planning help fight the spread of illness? Among Dr. Longe's recommendations is a school design solution: sinks in classrooms. That way, children do not have to leave the classroom to wash their hands. New solid-surface classroom sinks are available with integrated bowls and recessed waste receptacles, design options that effectively address germ buildup. And, because the unit is right in the classroom, teachers can monitor its use and ensure that it is properly maintained.

Creating Comfort The key to enticing both children and adults to wash their hands is creating user-friendly systems that are convenient and maximally hygienic, and this starts in the washroom.

The first step in creating a hygienic washroom environment is to provide enough facilities for the school population. Where too many people rely on too few restroom facilities, the result often is uncleanliness and health risks.

Contributing to the public's poor handwashing habits is the perception among many that contact with the facilities themselves spreads bacteria. Proper cleaning regimens are necessary to address this concern, but facility managers also can do a great deal to increase confidence among washroom users through design and layout decisions.

For example, spacious, well-lighted washrooms that incorporate color and other design elements from the school's overall architecture combat impressions among some people that washrooms are necessary, but ancillary, facilities. This whole-building approach to planning will demonstrate a school's pride in its entire facility and engender respect among students for all aspects of the property. Such user-friendly environments, when well-maintained, create a feeling of comfort among washroom users and encourage proper treatment of equipment.

Washroom Logistics Facility planners also should consider traffic flow when they are laying out school washrooms. Place lavatory stations before the exits of washrooms to create a natural flow of traffic from the washroom stalls and urinals to the handwashing area. In addition, provide enough lavatory stations to accommodate heavy traffic during short periods of time. Where space is an issue, install multistation lavatory units that accommodate up to four users at once.

The corridor concept provides an alternative layout solution that is gaining popularity among schools for its numerous benefits, including better hygiene. The concept places lavatory stations outside the washroom proper, within view of the hallway. Schools employing the corridor concept report a noticeable increase in washroom cleanliness and a decline in vandalism. The corridor concept balances the dual considerations of privacy and supervision necessary for younger students, allowing teachers to monitor handwashing practices.

Other layout considerations that may affect proper handwashing include the accessibility of fixtures and accessories. Building codes require schools to place lavatory stations at a proper height for their intended users. Manufacturers can provide juvenile-height fixtures, and wall-hung units can be secured at levels appropriate for young students.

Schools should place soap and towel dispensers within easy reach of users. Place waste receptacles nearby to encourage prompt disposal of paper towels. Recessed receptacles prevent contact with receptacle contents, and it is best to avoid units with hinged doors or other surfaces that require contact.

Surface Risk Management Schools cannot avoid all surface contact in washrooms, but no-touch technology, and developments in fixture and accessory materials are providing effective solutions to the spread of germs.

Sensor-activated faucets not only make handwashing convenient, but also serve as an effective tool against the transmission of disease.

Replacing doors with offset entryways eliminates another contact point where students could be exposed to germs.

In addition to these hands-free technologies, manufacturers have developed new surface materials that help combat the spread of bacteria. Solid-surface materials used for washroom fixtures have very low porosity and therefore resist contamination from fungi and bacteria. Solid-surface materials also do not contain the seams found in laminate fixtures. These seams, which occur between laminate pieces and between the drop-in bowl and the fixture countertop, are prone to bacterial contamination, much like the grout found between tile-based fixtures. Solid-surface washroom fixtures, with integrated bowls and seamless construction, avoid these problems.

Solid plastic is another relatively new material that effectively fights the spread of bacteria through surface contact. The food-service industry first embraced solid plastic for countertops and cutting boards. Today, schools are using solid plastic in washroom partitions, locker-room benches and lockers. This non-porous material is compounded from polymer resins under high pressure and is corrosion-proof and completely unaffected by moisture. Solid plastic can resist bacteria buildup and lend itself to more effective cleaning.

Electronic faucets encourage handwashing by making it more convenient and allowing users to avoid contact with contaminated surfaces. This no-touch technology is effective in fighting the spread of illness within schools. In addition, electronic washroom solutions can save your school money by reducing water usage and maintenance costs.

The most common use of electronics in washrooms is in handwashing fixtures. The typical electronic faucet uses recessed optical sensors driven by a small microprocessor. Programmable adjustments can control the sensor's range, its sensitivity to motion and how long the water will flow. Similar systems are available for showers and hand dryers.

They carry a higher purchase price, but electronic faucets can offer long-term cost benefits. Electronic sensors that are integrated into the lavatory fixture itself combat vandalism, and the reduced contact with the unit results in far fewer instances of abuse.

In addition, by controlling the temperature and flow of water, electronic faucets bring utility bills down. Most electronic faucets include an automatic shutoff feature that closes the fixture's valve if a non-moving presence is detected for a preset time period. This prevents vandals from attempting to trigger continuous water flow by placing an object over or in front of the sensor unit.

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