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A Look at Restrooms Around the World on World Toilet Day

Every year on Nov. 19th, World Toilet Day is celebrated with the goal of inspiring action and improving the global sanitation crisis. Sadly, more than 4.5 billion people throughout the world live without access to a household toilet, and this absence of a clean, sanitary environment not only fuels the spread of disease, it reinforces the cycle of poverty. In contrast, restroom sanitation is a key cultural focus in other parts of the world, reinforced through stories and song. In recognition of World Toilet Day, we’re looking at significance of restrooms in two very different parts of the world and how various these societies treat the people who are responsible for keeping them clean.

HAITI: In a place like Haiti where there’s no sewer system, more than 3 million residents (1 in 5 Haitians) use outhouses—so nearly every restroom is “public.” The people charged with cleaning out public toilets are known as bayakou. Their jobs are critical because Haiti is in the midst of a cholera epidemic. Deemed a “significant threat to global public health,” cholera results from poor hygiene, limited access to sanitation and inadequate water supply. While their jobs are critical to the health of people and children in Haiti, bayakou are often so scorned by the public that some never tell their spouses what they do for a living. Oftentimes, they clean at night because the smell is less intense and so they can hide in the darkness.

With no sewer systems in place, public restrooms in Haiti are cleaned by workers known as bayakou who often don’t tell their families about their work because of their shame.

JAPAN: On the other side of the world in Japan, visitors can expect the opposite experience when entering a public restroom. As writer Kaori Shoji suggests in the Japan Times, “you can expect a certain standard of cleanliness and tsukaiyasusa (accessibility) in most nooks and crannies.” This is because the restroom is a “prime feature of Japanese life” to the point that lore suggested daughters who cleaned the family toilet were destined to become beautiful, and would in turn bear beautiful daughters. In 2010, the song “Toire no Kamisama” or “The Toilet God” was a best seller, and just two years ago, the Japanese government launched the Japan Toilet Prize to “ensure that washrooms are always clean and safe.”

In U.S., we’re somewhere in the middle. While we’re fortunate to have access to public restrooms and sewage systems to reduce our exposure to diseases like cholera, it’s far from being treated as the most important room in the house when it comes to cleaning. In many facilities, the people who clean these areas are unappreciated for what they do. In the (OS1) System, we call these workers “restroom specialists.” But because their work goes unrecognized in most buildings, few restroom cleaners take pride in what they do. You’ll often hear custodians joke about being the “queen of the latrine” or “chief of the toilet brigade.”

Yet the role of the restroom specialist is no joke—it’s hard work and critical to business. In a recent Facility Cleaning Decisions survey, 56 percent of cleaning professionals say that restrooms are the most difficult areas in a facility to keep clean. Lack of supplies, trash, odor and spills are common issues plaguing cleaning workers.

From the customer perspective, a dirty restroom is a major turn-off. Seventy-five percent of U.S. adults say they wouldn’t return to a restaurant with dirty restrooms. An article featured earlier this month in Convenience Store Decisions found the same — “Clean Restrooms Are Good Business” it concluded.

So what is needed to help improve restroom cleanliness in the U.S.? A few things:

  1. Educating more people about the implications of a dirty restroom. A dirty restroom not only poses health risks, but also can also be a deterrent to customers.
  2. Appreciating, recognizing and supporting restroom specialists and custodians responsible for cleaning the restrooms.
  3. Moving beyond “the box” mentality. Restroom cleaning isn’t just a little box someone checks off after they have picked up a few pieces of stray paper towels. It needs to be a system that regularly monitors and maintains restroom surfaces in a way that ensures a consistent level of cleanliness—and health.

If you want to recognize World Toilet Day, you have a couple of options. To help reduce the number of people without access to a household toilet, you can donate to the World Toilet Organization, which is a non-profit organization aimed at providing a clean and safe toilet for everyone, everywhere at all times.

You can also take a minute to thank the person who cleans the public restrooms where you work or visit. By letting them know you appreciate what they do, you help improve their appreciation and respect for the work they perform.

Additional resources: “Inside the Hidden Dangers of Life without Toilets.”

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A Closer Look: Why You Need to Treat Restroom Cleaning Like the Sinking of the Titanic

Note: In our “Closer Look” posts, we’ll take a deeper dive into the history of common products and technology used in custodial operations. If there’s a particular topic you’d like us to explore, just let us know!

It wasn’t until 16th century when the plague rocked England seven times in a 200-year span that people started taking a hard look at their cleaning and hygiene habits. The first flushing toilet was invented in 1596 by Sir John Harrington, a wealthy poet and godson to Queen Elizabeth I. Though innovative and not much different from the toilets we know today, royals never took to it because it was a fixed device in a room by itself and they were accustomed to having toilets brought to them. Additionally, the queen felt that having a room dedicated to using the toilet was lewd.

At that time, the type of toilet you used depended on your class. People in lower class societies used communal privies, which often resembled a bridge-like structure and was situated over a river. Individuals in the middle class used chamber pots, which was a basic bowl that allowed for some privacy and was later emptied into the street or river. Royals used fancy velvet-lined stools with a chamber pot situated inside the seat. The stools were brought to them by servants, who would roll them away once they were finished with them.

Several inventors contributed designs that are used in the toilet we all know today. This includes Thomas Crapper, who developed a patent for the flushing apparatus.

And contrary to popular belief that Mr. Crapper’s study of the toilet led to the development of the slang term “crap” as it relates to bodily waste, the term actually comes from Middle English origin and predates any reference to it as bodily waste. At least, that’s what Wikipedia says.

Today, restrooms continue to play a critical role in controlling sanitation and protecting public health. They require more chemicals, custodial products, labor, government regulation awareness and professional cleaning knowledge than any other area in a facility. Restrooms are at the very top of the list of cleaning priorities.

Restrooms are often a top area of complaints, and they also can host the most pathogenic microorganisms, including hepatitis, herpes simplex I and II, along with numerous blood borne pathogens.

We have two primary rules when it comes to managing restroom cleaning:

  1. You never get a second chance to make a first impression. 
  2. You never know how much of a mess will be in a restroom during the hours of operation.

Thoughts on Rule 1: If that first impression is negative, it can mean a lost customer. A survey by Zogby International revealed that 80 percent of consumers would avoid a restaurant with a dirty restroom.

Thoughts on Rule 2: We recommend treating restroom cleaning during operational hours like the sinking of the Titanic. You wouldn’t grab all of your photos and put on your tuxedo before jumping ship—just the essentials for survival. The same goes for cleaning the restroom when it’s open—pick up trash and spot mop visible defects. Make sure all toilets are flushed, dispensers are stocked and all water is wiped from the countertops.

Clean restrooms indicate a commitment to quality. Make it a priority.