Cleaning A Gross Bathroom!

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about responsibility for cleaning:

A customer left feces all over the toilet and restroom. I put an out of order sign on the restroom and called my General Manager. He told me to email my District telling him the toilet will be out of order until a cleaning crew comes to handle the job. We do not have the proper sanitation supplies (bleach, gloves, face masks, or a different apron from the one we use to make drinks) to clean the bathroom.

My District Manager said I needed to clean it up. I refused and he questioned my loyalty to the company as well as my ability of being a Shift Supervisor. He would not allow the store to open without a working restroom and our store opens at 6am. I tried to suggest a cleaning crew that would be 24/7 but all alternatives were declined by the District Manager.

After I refused to clean it my D.M. told me he would speak to me on a later date about my services to the company. The outcome was that my General Manager was obligated to clean it and without protection and had to clean feces that was all over the toilet. I feel like this was a major health and safety violation and to this day the restroom smells bad. The bag of waste just got thrown into the public trash to spread even more unhealthy bacteria. Was this decision wrong on the part of the District Manager?

I feel that the whole thing is being blamed on me since I was the manager on duty when it happened. If you have any input that would help my research on this topic it would be much obliged. What I would like to happen from my situation is a clear cut protocol on how to handle a situation like this in the future. My District Manager still says he would like to talk to me about my loyalty to the coffee shop(after I’ve worked there 6 years. I feel abused and disposable. It is like he thinks I should clean up human waste and get Ecoli, Hepatitis B, or even Aids virus because there are always ten other people who can replace me.

Signed, Disgusted

Dear Disgusted:

This response is going to include some thoughts about this specific situation, as well as a practical look at the subject of bathroom cleaning. I consulted with a janitorial company owner and with a trainer for OSHA health programs, as well as doing some reading on the subject, to gather information that may be helpful for you and others.

No one wants to look at, smell or clean up feces and urine–even their own. That is why public bathrooms in businesses and restaurants are so often grossly dirty, unless a designated janitor is doing the cleaning.

But, people do use them and they must be kept clean. Not only is it a law, based on public health requirements, but it is part of running a business and providing customer service. The good news is that feces and urine can be cleaned up in most situations, by normal people, using easily obtained cleaning supplies and tools.

OSHA does not designate feces and urine in normal bathroom situations as a bio-hazard, because the term is reserved for those things which require extraordinary care to avoid contamination. Certainly there are infectious diseases that can be spread by the bacteria in human waste, but the mere presence of waste or normal cleaning procedures for human waste, are not unusually hazardous.

That is not much consolation if you have to clean it up, but it IS generally safe to clean up human or animal feces and urine, in most bathroom conditions. You don’t need a face mask, although those are easily obtained at drug stores, if you want to use them.  You would certainly want to wear gloves, to prevent bacteria getting into small cuts and scrapes on your skin and under your fingernails.  If you use a cleaning tool such as a brush, your hands to not have to come in contact with feces or urine.

Janitors, mothers and others routinely clean up terrible stuff without wearing special equipment. On a personal note, I have cleaned up police station holding cell bathrooms that were unbelievably dirty and smelly, because detainees took out their anger by messing up everything or they were so drunk they didn’t know what they were doing.

I used Lysol and water, a toilet bowl brush and paper towels and I wore gloves, which I washed in Lysol afterwards. (Nowadays I’d use disposable gloves.) Almost every day I had to use a dust pan to scoop up things first, then wash the dust pan. I disliked it—but it had to be done by someone and I was the one assigned to do it.

The OSHA trainer commented to me that if “poop and pee” (as she called it) were designated as bio-hazards, preschools across the country would have dozens of bio-hazard events a day, each of them requiring costly and time-consuming clean-up. As it is, diapers and potty chairs are cleaned by hand, wearing gloves, using standard cleansers and disinfectant, and throwing the waste material and used diapers into regular trash bags that are dumped in regular dumpsters. They use the same general protocols as janitors use when they clean public bathrooms.

The owner of a janitorial company told me that his company had been called to clean one toilet stool a customer didn’t flush, because no employee wanted to get involved with it! He said he has noticed that no one is concerned about the well-being of the janitors they see in bathrooms but if they are asked to clean anything in a bathroom themselves, it suddenly becomes a deadly threat.

I’m sure there are cleaning supplies of some kind in your store, because food service has to have cleaning products. Usually they have disposable gloves, or those could be purchased. You and your manager could have wrapped a plastic trash bag around your clothes or just avoided splashing your clothing.

As far as throwing out the waste goes…Americans throw tons of dog feces and soiled baby diapers away in trash cans every year, so there is no great harm in that in most circumstances. Hospitals have other protocols, because of their circumstances, but even waste management companies don’t treat trash that contains diapers and dog waste in a special manner.

If you want to research the safety aspect in more detail you might want to check with your state’s OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) requirements. The other place to check is with your city’s restaurant inspection agency or department. They likely have a posted inspection notice in your restaurant, with a phone number. They would be the ones who would inspect the restroom to see if it is now sanitary enough for use. They very likely have requirements for cleaning supplies and equipment.

Another issue in your situation is whether or not you had ever been told that you might have to clean the bathroom or any other part of the business. If you knew you were responsible for cleaning the bathroom, then your District Manager probably felt that you were not fulfilling your responsibilities.

Since he wasn’t there he probably didn’t realize how awful it was and how unpleasant it would be to clean up.Even if he knew, he would probably still have pointed out that it must be cleaned up–but he might have been more sympathetic. (I don’t suppose you thought to take a photo with your camera or phone, but that would have been a good idea.)

The fact is, someone had to clean it. And, full-time janitors are expensive for only occasional major clean up. So, the District Manager was probably frustrated that the General Manager and the Supervisor (you) were expecting to just close the door on the mess and not have a restroom when the store opened. That really is not acceptable for a business and the District Manager knew it.

The District Manager also probably did not want to spend the money on special cleaning services for something that could be cleaned without special skills or equipment. The trouble is that no one teaches employees how to clean a bathroom, and most individuals have such an aversion to bathroom cleaning that they don’t want to learn.

You say that the General Manager came in and cleaned it but it still smells badly. That’s because he didn’t do a very good job! You can bet if it was his own bathroom he would have cleaned it thoroughly and it would smell good again. It needs to be cleaned the right way, before customers or employees use it.

The right thing for the General Manager to have done would have been to come to the shop right away and work WITH you to clean the place thoroughly and leave it clean and fresh smelling for customers. That is what would have to be done if someone had vomited in the store. You couldn’t close the store, you would have had to clean it up.  That’s just part of doing business. It’s an unpleasant part…but it’s part of it.

What can you do now? I think you can use this as a learning experience and a great business experience as well. Write or call your General Manager and District Manager too, if you know him that well. Tell him that you’ve thought about this and realize that part of the problem is that you didn’t really know how to handle such a gross situation–but that you would like to be part of finding a solution for it now. You might have to be more apologetic than you want to be. But it might help your future there, if that is important to you.

Suggest that there be a written list of steps for cleaning the bathroom, if there is not already one. Surely a national chain has such a list-but perhaps not. Part of those instructions should be how to clean up in unusual situations like vomit, feces, urine or blood. Only rarely would outside help have to be called, but if it is needed, a contact number should be readily available.

There should be a well-stocked cleaning kit and supplies that make cleaning less disgusting, such as short handled mops and brushes, room sprays and several pairs of gloves. There should be a smock or apron just for cleaning in unusual cases–although it wouldn’t be necessary for routine cleaning. All of that should be part of the company’s routine supplies and equipment. And every employee, but especially every supervisor and manager, should know how to clean thoroughly and effectively.

I’m going to suggest something you may not want to do: During your next shift, clean the bathroom thoroughly and make it smell good again. Then, tell your manager you did it as a way to get it back to a good starting point. Wear gloves and use plenty of hot water with cleaning solution. Flood the floor and clean it really well. Thoroughly wash every surface, especially around the toilet. Wash the flushing handles and the toilet stool lids, seats and tissue holders, as well as the door knobs and around the door handles. (The dirtiest part of public bathrooms.)Really clean the place up and make it smell sanitary again.

Then, assign a different employee every shift to help you keep it clean. Or, if you work alone, plan on looking at the bathroom every couple of hours. Every restaurant review talks about clean bathrooms, so it is crucial for running your coffee shop and it is part of the job of the manager on a shift.

An overview of my lengthy message is:

1. Help your General Manager develop a cleaning protocol for routine and emergency cleaning, if the company doesn’t already have one. If it doesn’t, suggest that the one you develop should be part of every employee’s training.

2. Make it a point to learn how to clean a bathroom quickly AND effectively and with the approach that it will be over and done soon and it’s just another part of work–even though it’s an unpleasant part. Be thankful you aren’t cleaning outdoor latrines, like being in the military!

Remember also that urine and feces are not considered bio-hazards from the viewpoint of being life-threatening to clean, under normal circumstances.  The bathroom MUST be cleaned up if you want to have a business. (And even though you are not the owner or manager, you at least have taken a supervisor’s role and want to live up to that.) And, since you and other employees will use that bathroom too, it’s to everyone’s benefit to have it clean.

3. Show your maturity and managerial ability by going in the bathroom and cleaning it up really well, no matter how much you don’t want to do it. Apparently the worst has been done, so it isn’t as gross as before. Then, let your boss know you did it as a way to get rid of that bad situation and start fresh.

They won’t expect it of you and it will be a very positive point on your behalf. I was serious when I said this is a great learning experience for you. We often hear about bosses who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty! This is one of those times to be able to say you can do it and survive. You can also have a role in helping employees learn the safe way to clean, which may make it seem less gross and more just a job necessity.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.