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The Trouble with Hand Dryers

hands underneath hand dryer

Fiona at BBUK, shares an insight about the trouble with hand dryers. Electric hand dryers have now become a the most common method of drying our hands when using public toilets, this is mainly due to their excellent reduction in cost to the environment.

Paper towels required the destruction of trees, factory processing, additional packaging, storage and travel miles. Plastic bags to collect, store and remove used ones and staff to dispose of them and refill the dispensers, some could be composted, but most were buried or burned. The financial and environmental cost savings cannot be denied. Also, the newest dryers are becoming more efficient, faster and using even less energy.

But there are new problems presented by these noisy machines- the more powerful the fan the quicker the drying time, but the louder they become.

Many people, especially young children, particularly those with more sensitivity to sound and those who dislike surprises, are finding hand dryers create anxiety and for many a refusal to use public toilets. As a continence advisor I see this problem frequently and families report their children preferring to try to hold their poo and wee, or even to wet or soil their underwear, rather than using public toilets. Others refuse to go out to places with the feared equipment, using only toilets they know have no dryers, so limiting choices for the rest of the family too.

Having discussed the problem with many families, also with some children who were able to explain or describe their fears. It appears that the issue is less the volume of the noise, more that the child is unable to prepare themselves as they do not know when the noise will start. They do not have the visual clues as they are in a cubicle.

One mother had made a laminated sign saying ‘Out of order’ which she would hang on the machine when they went into the toilet, removing it when they left. Sometimes there were more than one dryer, so she carried three signs, but some motorway services had multiple machines, so her son refused to use the loo without enough signs. Mum said it was amusing to overhear the comments of other customers as they found that all of the hand dryers were broken.

Another mother reported turning off the electricity supply at the wall- if the socket was obvious, also trying to remember to switch it on again when leaving.

Another family were able to add painted eyes and a smiling mouth to the dryer in their child’s school and to give it a name, an attempt to give it ‘pet’ status. Their child became more accepting of it and would talk to it, while it was silent, but still was upset when it made a noise whilst she was in the cubicle.

One child responded well to a project, she would photograph the different sorts of dryers and give them a rating according to their noisiness, appearance and effectiveness, adding further scores for position of the machine and other features. This quickly became a fascination and developed into an obsession.

Other families have reported carrying ear defenders and using ear plugs to reduce the sound, with varying amounts of success- some children refusing to use the toilets if the ear defenders are not in mums’ handbag.

Another mother said she and her son sang loudly whilst he was on the loo to drown out the sound, this was also beneficial in helping him to empty his bladder and bowel more efficiently, but not everyone would have the level of confidence needed and not every child is proud of their parents singing.

As it is the lack of warning that the noise is about to start, that appears to be the biggest problem, I considered placing a sign above the dryers, asking people to call out before starting to use it. But that would only be effective if everyone was able to read the sign and were willing and able to help.

Probably the most successful idea has been, recording the noise and playing it back, more quietly to start with and at random times, while the child is happily playing, increasing the volume as the child gets used to it.

It is probable that different children will respond to different methods, families may need to try a variety of ideas, before finding one that works for the child.

I do wonder if it might be possible for the dryer manufacturers to create a warning noise or note, just before the fans start up, to warn anyone who is upset by these devices.

But the most important thing is to keep trying different options, to keep pushing a little bit more, so that a fear of toilets does not isolate the child and their family, limiting their options and preventing them choosing where they want to go out to.

We want to hear your thoughts on hand dryers

Have you had any success with these techniques or found any other ideas that could be helpful to other families or carers? Please share your comments below.

This post has been written by Fiona Boorman, Children’s Specialist Nurse at BBUK.

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