RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

Topic: Public restroom availability in reopening - 9/16/2020
A small, rural public library, we have public restrooms. In pre-pandemic times, our restrooms were...
Posted: Wednesday, September 16, 2020 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

A small, rural public library, we have public restrooms. In pre-pandemic times, our restrooms were not kept locked, and were cleaned once a day by our building's maintenance person.

Both restrooms are ADA-compliant and include a changing table. We have already installed motion sensors on the toilets and sink and replaced the hot air dryer with paper towels. Currently, our building is only open to staff and they wipe down touched surfaces with cleaner after use, and initial that they have done so on a bathroom cleaning log as required by our Safety Plan.

As we edge toward reopening to the public, we have many questions around these restrooms. Should we lock the restrooms and require the public to ask for a key? Should we lock the restrooms to the public entirely? Should we return to our pre-pandemic practice of completely open restrooms cleaned once a day? Should we require non-janitorial staff to clean the restrooms during open hours, and, if yes, how often, and do they require training on the products and methods required to clean a public restroom during a pandemic--and what kind of PPE does that require?

Any guidance on how to handle ostensibly public restrooms in an ostensibly public building is appreciated.

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

Like many of you, I have had to tackle a lot of previously unaddressed conundrums since March of 2020.  Especially when it involved developing a Safety Plan, this "tackling" has required research, patience, a good sense of humor, and lots of flexibility.[1]

The issue of how to handle 1) newfound concerns regarding the sanitary conditions of workplace toilets; and 2) newfound concerns about sanitary conditions of toilets in public spaces, is one of the most high-stakes and complex.  It can cause a lot of anxiety.

When a matter makes me anxious, I resort to either exercise, or exacting linguistic specificity.  Since you don't come to "Ask the Lawyer" for workout tips[2], I will address this anxiety-provoking issue with exacting linguistic specificity, starting with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)'s definitions of the different terminology used for bathrooms[3]:


Personal service room, means a room used for activities not directly connected with the production or service function performed by the establishment. Such activities include, but are not limited to, first-aid, medical services, dressing, showering, toilet use, washing, and eating.

Toilet facility, means a fixture maintained within a toilet room for the purpose of defecation or urination, or both.

Toilet room, means a room maintained within or on the premises of any place of employment, containing toilet facilities for use by employees.

Urinal means a toilet facility maintained within a toilet room for the sole purpose of urination.

Water closet means a toilet facility maintained within a toilet room for the purpose of both defecation and urination and which is flushed with water.
 

Now, before we go further: a few words about OSHA.  Based on size, location, type, and a dozen other factors, there is no one-size-fits-all for OSHA compliance. But public employers (like many libraries) in NY are required to follow OSHA's standards for employee toilets[4], and non-public employers, whose bathroom-supplying obligations will change by site and size of the organization, can refer to those standards for inspiration.[5] And OSHA (along with the Center for Disease Control, or "CDC") is currently a New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) go-to for COVID-related sanitization information. 

So with those three resources in mind (NYSDOH, CDC, and OSHA), let's address the member's questions:

QUESTION 1: Should we lock the restrooms to the public entirely?

The first question to address in this is not "should" the library lock the restrooms to the public entirely, but can it?

Any library considered a place of "public assembly,"[6] by state regulation, must have a bathroom open to the public.[7]  However, the definition of a "place of public assembly" expressly excludes public association and free libraries, so yes, and while a municipal library will have a few more hoops to jump through, an association library can decide to limit access by the public.

If your library isn't required to have a "toilet facility" accessible by the public[8], and the capacity of your library means the toilet facility can't be routinely cleaned per the NYSDOH's recommendations, it is worth considering reducing or shutting access down.[9]

 

QUESTION 2: Should we lock the restrooms and require the public to ask for a key?

If this would help monitor use so the bathroom can be cleaned on an as-needed basis per NYSDOH/CDC/OSHA recommendations, yes, that is a viable option, and can be included as part of a Safety Plan. 

Should we return to our pre-pandemic practice of completely open restrooms cleaned once a day?

OSHA states: "Employers operating workplaces during the COVID-19 pandemic should continue routine cleaning and other housekeeping practices in any facilities that remain open to workers or others. Employers who need to clean and disinfect environments potentially contaminated with SARS-CoV-2 should use EPA-registered disinfectants with label claims to be effective against SARS-CoV-2."

Meanwhile, the Phase II Safety Plan template from New York State requires any library to: "Conduct regular cleaning and disinfection at least after every shift, daily, or more frequently as needed, and frequent cleaning and disinfection of shared objects (e.g. tools, machinery) and surfaces, as well as high transit areas, such as restrooms and common areas, must be completed."

So, although there is no mathematically determined heightened standard, these requirements show that routine disinfection should be based on frequency of use, and at a bare minimum, bathrooms should be disinfected at least "once per shift," and there should be a log to register each cleaning (just as the member described they are already doing).

 

QUESTION 3: Should we require non-janitorial staff to clean the restrooms during open hours, and, if yes, how often, and do they require training on the products and methods required to clean a public restroom during a pandemic--and what kind of PPE does that require?

This is a tricky question.  "Requiring" non-janitorial staff to do a task not in their job description risks concerns with morale, operational consistency, and if there is a contract involved, compliance (this will vary from library to library, of course).  And if the cleaning supplies trip a person's health conditions, there might also be concerns with ADA. 

Because of this, like all aspects of the Safety Plan, the requirement to sanitize surfaces in the bathroom(s) must be planned carefully. 

That should start with an analysis of the toilet facility, just as the member asking this question has done.  Does it have one toilet or many?  Does it have touchless sinks or sinks with handles?  Is the tile in good condition, or is the grout failing?  In short, what does it take to sanitize your library's unique space effectively?

One you've done the analysis, select the right products from the EPA's list of products known to effectively combat COVID-19, and based on the instructions on the product, select the method of disinfection that meets the needs of your operation, including the frequency.  And once you have established the method and the frequency, the requirements for employee PPE and training are here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/disinfecting-building-facility.html and they include a link to a pdf poster about safe disinfection of the work site: https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2020-04/documents/disinfectants-onepager.pdf.

 

And finally, the last part of the member's submission: Any guidance on how to handle ostensibly public restrooms in an ostensibly public building is appreciated.

This is a great summarizing statement, because as it hints, and as this answer reviews, not all "public" restrooms are actually required to be open to the public at all.  Once you have confirmed the requirements for your particular library, it's time to assess what you can do—and what your mission demands that you do.  If that means reducing toilet facility access to minimum required levels, so employee energy and your library's budget can focus on service to the public, make it so.  If that means re-allocating part of the budget to hire a contractor specifically to clean the bathrooms every four hours since your library knows public access is either required or essential, and your library isn't situated to add that to employees' job descriptions, do that.  And if that means employees are expected to take on new duties to effect routine sanitization, develop a well-thought-out rollout plan[10] before implementing that as an express job duty.[11]

But whatever you do with the restrooms, the key is to consistently document that your library is following the NYDSOH, CDC, and OSHA guidelines suited to its unique site, location, and identity.

Thank you for a great question and a great example of the care libraries are taking to stay open and safe for the public.

 

 



[1] One of my co-workers rejected my first idea for managing our narrow hallway in the office.  "I will not announcement my presence by yelling "Gang Way!", Cole."  We settled on a protocol of visual inspection, first.   Even when your name is over the door, a Safety Plan is a matter of give and take.

[2] That said, if you suffer from carpel tunnel or sore forearms from too much typing, put your hands down flat (palm side up), stand on your fingers/palms, and pull upwards for 1minute 3xday.  Changed my life. 

[3] The OSHA-specific information is aggregated at this link: https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19/covid-19-faq.html#restrooms

[4]  This standard is enforced by the New York State Department of Labor Public Employees Safety and Health Bureau (NYSDOL PES) for public employees.

[5] Further information on required numbers of toilets can be found here, but for the sake of brevity, I am not going to go there: https://www.dos.ny.gov/DCEA/pdf/TB-2011-BCNYS%20-%20Minimum%20Required%20Toilet%20Facilities%20Based%20on%20Occupancy.pdf

[6] Per New York State Labor Law, §2, a “Place of public assembly” shall include (1) a theatre, (2) moving picture house, (3) assembly halls maintained or leased for pecuniary gain where one hundred or more persons may assemble for amusement or recreation, except (a) halls owned by churches, religious organizations, granges, and public association and free libraries as defined by section two hundred fifty-three of the education law, and (b) hotels having fifty or more rooms. [emphasis added, note the exclusionary language].

[7] 12 NYCRR 36-2.8

[8] Be careful in this analysis; if possible, confirm any conclusion that you don't have to have a public bathroom with your local attorney, or the municipal building inspector.

[9] Just be mindful that General Business Law Section 492 requires any place of business with an employee bathroom to let a visitor use that bathroom if it is a medical necessity.  While your library might not be a "place of business" under that law, people with medical needs may have an expectation of access.  Be ready to be flexible if there is a medical need for a toilet facility.

[10] This could simply mean thinking the Safety Plan through, meeting with employees to make sure they are on board with it, and making sure every employee has clarity about safety.  It can also mean working with your civil service agency or local attorney, so any contractual aspects are properly considered.  Since these are tense times for employees, good planning and communication about job duties is essential.

[11] In many library environments, it will be fine to add sanitization as a "duty as assigned," but in other places (with detailed job descriptions, a union contract, or contracts or policies that could impact the "assignment") it will not.  This concern cannot be answered generally; it will vary from library to library.

Tags: COVID-19, Emergency Response, Public Libraries, Reopening policies

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