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Safety first

May 1, 2010
by Dave Jansik
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Keep water inside barrier-free showers

Any facility manager will tell you that the problems water pose have at some time or another kept him or her up nights. Slips and falls are key concerns when it comes to safety and injury prevention for visitors, customers, and staff. Falls are the leading cause of injury for people 65 and older in the United States, and water is a leading cause of damage in commercial and residential facilities. There is also the potential for water to support mold and bacterial growth.

Bathrooms are certainly a focal point of these watery issues. When you consider ADA requirements for accessibility and the movement toward universal design, we are seeing more low-threshold and barrier-free showers being installed in new facilities and during remodels of pre-existing buildings.

Critical points

Low barriers of entry and access are critical in these types of facilities. Taking away the bathtub wall we have grown used to stepping over removes a major risk for falls, especially for those with mobility issues. Barrier-free shower units are especially useful for residents with disabilities. They are designed for ease of access for people who find using a traditional shower very difficult, or impossible based upon their disability. These shower units blend in with the floor so there is nothing to step over. They also enable wheelchair access. Low-barrier showers are not only safer, but they give residents the opportunity to bathe themselves independently and with dignity.

ADA guidelines state that “curbs in shower stalls 36″ x 36″ shall be no higher than 1/2″. Shower stalls that are 30″ x 60″ minimum shall not have curbs.” This is a far cry from the water barrier that a traditional bathtub wall provides.

According to Cal Osborn, of ADA-compliant shower and walk-in tub manufacturer Best Bath Systems, water containment is an issue that comes up quite a bit. “A question we are often asked is, ‘Doesn't the water splash out and run all over the floor outside the shower?’ Not if you have the right system in place,” he answers.

At a glance…

With falls being the leading cause of injury in adults 65 years of age and older, it is imperative to keep water inside barrier-free showers. This article will suggest ways to accomplish that.

Low-barrier showers are not only safer, but they give residents the opportunity to bathe themselves independently and with dignity.

A water dam, or waterstopper, has become the preferred barrier-free shower accessory used today. This T-shaped strip is made of durable molded rubber that flexes underfoot or when a wheelchair rolls in and out of the shower. It quickly springs back to its upright position as the bather passes in and out of the shower. The waterstopper can be trimmed to fit across the threshold of any barrier-free shower, and is typically installed with epoxy adhesive and fitted into end caps where the floor and wall meet.

Other safeguards

A water dam alone will not prevent water from escaping the shower. Osborn recommends installing a heavy-gauge vinyl shower curtain that has weighted tape sewn into the bottom hem. The curtain needs to be of a length that the bottom is approximately 1/2″ or less above the shower floor. It should be aligned from above so that when it is closed it rests along the inner side of the water dam. A curtain that hangs from a sturdy curtain rod also provides something else to grab hold of if the bather loses balance.

One alternative to diverting water flow is to channel water away through a flat drain, or water gully, fitted along the shower entrance, although this type of setup doesn't provide the vertical barrier that a water dam does and is more costly to install. Triangular foam water dams are another option, but have been shown in some cases to tear under the weight of a wheelchair. Other options include spring-loaded metal water dams and trackless shower doors.

It's imperative to have the proper products in place to keep water within your barrier-free showers. Combined with a comprehensive and proactive cleaning and maintenance program, you will sleep better at night knowing that your bathrooms are safe and dry.

Dave Janis is a freelance writer based in Boise, Idaho.

To send your comments to the editor, e-mail mhrehocik@vendomegrp.com.

Long-Term Living 2010 May;59(5):38-39

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