Rub-a-Dub: How Safe Is Your Tub?

Tips and Technology to Make Your Bathroom a Safer Place

Rubber duck for bath234,000.

That’s the population of Norfolk, Va. It’s the population of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, too. And in 2008, that was the number of people in the United States taken to the emergency room because of injuries occurring in their bathrooms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC says the vast majority of those bathroom injuries—four out of five—can be attributed to falling, an all-too-common occurrence in rooms full of hard surfaces that get slippery when wet. And that 234,000 statistic includes people 15 and older, proving that bathroom safety is an important topic for everyone.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to make your bathrooms safer for yourself, your family and visitors.

Assessing Your Bathroom

Invacare shower chair

A bath or shower chair, such as this one by Invacare Corp., provides stability and added safety during bathing.

Judging by how many people are injured in their bathrooms every year, many, many bathrooms could benefit from a safety overhaul. But every person’s and family’s needs are different. So before you can determine the types of improvements your bathroom needs, you need to think about:

  • Who will most often use this particular bathroom? Will the bathroom mostly be used by seniors? Kids? Family members with special needs? Does the bathroom need to be used by family members with disabilities as well as those who are able-bodied?
  • What challenges or disabilities do the bathroom’s main users have? Do they use wheelchairs, walkers or other mobility equipment that needs to go into the bathroom with them? Do they have low vision, or difficulties with range of motion, agility or poor balance? Do they need caregiver assistance in the bathroom? If so, how much and what type of assistance?
  • What needs to be accomplished in this bathroom? Yes, bathrooms are used for toileting, washing hands and faces, and bathing. But will your bathroom also be used for getting dressed or undressed, or for grooming?

Making a Bathroom More Accessible

Once you’ve determined who will most often use a particular bathroom and what activities need to take place there, it’s time to develop your bath safety plan. A wide array of bath safety and accessibility products and strategies can make bathrooms safer and more convenient for all who use them.

The types of accessibility equipment can be divided into several major categories:

Invacare grab bar

Some grab bars, such as this suction-mounted one from Invacare Corp., can be removed and repositioned in seconds.

To help with balance difficulties: Grab bars provide family members of all ages safe, strong fixtures to hold onto. Grab bars are most commonly seen in bathtubs or showers so that people can hold onto them while getting in and out or while washing. But grab bars can also provide a handhold near toilets or sinks, which enable people to hold on while rising from a seated position or while brushing their teeth. Properly installed grab bars are much stronger and safer than towel bars or toilet paper holders, which are not designed or installed to support a person’s weight.

Moen shower accessories

Accessories from Moen, available at retailers such as Lowe’s, can help keep bathing supplies easily within reach.

If someone in your family has trouble standing while showering, a bathtub or shower chair can provide a stable, comfortable seat. Before you’re tempted to put a regular footstool or plastic chair into the tub or shower, consider this: Bath and shower chairs are specially designed for stability in wet environments, and they don’t rust. They also typically have holes in the seat or use mesh fabrics so water and soap can drain right through or evaporate quickly. That’s important to prevent possible slipping and also to help skin to stay healthy.

Nuprodx’s MULTICHAIR system

With Nuprodx’s MULTICHAIR system, a wheelchair user can transfer from chair to seat and then slide into a tub or shower. The system compactly disassembles for travel or storage.

To help with transfers: Bathrooms are small spaces, and it can be difficult to carry, lift and maneuver even a small child in such tight quarters. With the number of hard and slippery surfaces, bathrooms can be dangerous for both people with special needs and their caregivers.

Rather than lifting (or being lifted), consider bath transfer systems, which use seats and tracks to safely and easily slide the user from outside the bathtub to inside it, and back out again. These slider systems can also slide the user over a toilet or commode.
Ceiling lifts use tracks as well, but are installed on the ceiling. They typically carry the user from bed to bathroom, but the tracks can be configured to carry the user to other locations in the home as well.

Optima Toilet & Shower System from Columbia Medical

The growable Optima Toilet & Shower System from Columbia Medical functions as a stand-alone commode or can be wheeled over the toilet or into the shower.

To help with convenience and independence: Hand-held shower heads can be helpful for people who bathe themselves. More sophisticated models offer so many water pressure options that you may feel your shower has turned into a spa. Other models include eco-friendly water-conservation or low-flow options.

Shower ramps can help wheelchair users navigate over those pesky thresholds often seen in walk-in showers. Like other types of bath safety equipment, threshold shower ramps are constructed of materials that won’t rust, while nonrusting in-shower ramps also are designed so water can drain through instead of building up on the surface.

Solutions to Fit Your Style

Harmar’s AquaJoy Premier PLUS bathlift

Harmar’s AquaJoy Premier PLUS bathlift supports consumers weighing up to 375 lbs., lifts users into and out of the bathtub, and requires no installation.

Yesterday’s accessibility products tended to care more about function than form, which led many consumers to proclaim, “We don’t want our bathrooms to look like they belong in hospitals!”

Thankfully, those voices have been heard. You’re likely to see today’s accessibility products for the bathroom described in terms such as polished brass, oil-rubbed bronze, glacier white or brushed nickel. Many of today’s bathroom fixture lines include not only towel racks and toilet paper dispensers but also grab bars, thus ensuring that they all match each other and enabling grab bars to fit seamlessly into the bathroom’s decor. Hand-held showerheads look more like elegant sculptures than utilitarian appliances, and performance reviews from consumers are as liable to praise the product’s good looks as to talk about its awesome water pressure choices.

Even equipment for people with more complex medical needs, such as bathroom slider or transfer systems, can typically be taken apart or moved aside when not in use—or packed up to take along on a road trip or plane ride. Likewise, some bathtub grab bars can be removed or reinstalled in moments.

All this means it’s simpler than ever to find products that not only meet your bathroom needs but also fit into your lifestyle and the rest of your home.

But if you or a family member has a special challenge, it can be helpful to get advice specifically related to that disability or condition.

For example, AARP has a bathroom safety checklist for seniors who may be experiencing age-related difficulties, including low vision, problems maneuvering in tight spaces, or difficulties grasping and turning faucet handles.

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s checklist focuses on adjusting bathroom lighting, using hygiene and bathing accessories that help consumers with dexterity issues, and keeping the bathroom at a comfortable temperature.

People living with Parkinson’s disease often experience dizziness when getting up from the toilet or while standing at the sink, says the National Parkinson Foundation. Tips for improving bathroom safety include ideas for preventing dizziness and the loss of balance that accompanies it.

For people with impaired sensation, such as those with spinal cord injuries, safety issues include burns from hot pipes and hot water, according to If hand or arm strength or dexterity has been affected, Facing Disability suggests it can be helpful to use lever-style doorknobs that can be pushed instead of turned, and motion-detector lights that switch on automatically.

If you’re a wheelchair user in the United Kingdom, check out the Department for Social Development’s suggestions.

Bathrooms can present a number of physical challenges, but fortunately, today’s wide array of assistive technology products—ranging from low-tech to customized high-tech solutions—are ready to make these all-important spaces safer and more convenient for all members of the family. And making those changes today can prevent future injuries for the entire family.

When to Call in an Expert

While some bath safety improvements, such as clearing pathways or adding a shower chair, are easy fixes, other bathroom modifications require professional help. Those situations can include widening or altering doorways, installing grab bars, choosing and installing barrier-free showers, or designing a bathroom that includes a “toe kick” space under the sink so a wheelchair user can roll right up to it.

So where’s the best place to start when making a bathroom more accessible? First, take advantage of the healthcare relationships you already have:

  • Physical or occupational therapist: Your OT or PT can help you determine where you or a family member could use support—maybe, for instance, in transferring from a wheelchair into the bathtub or onto the toilet. Your OT or PT probably also works with assistive technology or durable medical equipment (DME) providers who sell bath safety equipment and are experienced in helping you find the right products for you.
  • Rehab hospital or facility: If you’ve successfully used transfer equipment or grab bars and are looking to incorporate these products into your home, ask if the rehab facility works with a complex rehab technology or DME provider who can help with your equipment.
  • Complex rehab technology provider: If you have an ultralightweight manual chair, seating system or power wheelchair, ask the provider if he/she also sells bath safety and accessibility equipment, or can recommend someone who does. Working with your wheelchair provider can be especially helpful because he or she already knows your medical history and prognosis, and can help you plan for current and future accessibility needs.

Especially for more involved home modifications—including widening hallways or doorways or renovating bathrooms—the important industry acronyms to remember are CAPS (Certified Aging In Place Specialist) and CEAC (Certified Environmental Access Consultant). Professionals with those credentials have completed specialized training and education in home accessibility.

Accessible Home Improvement of America (AHIA) can help consumers learn about accessibility choices, whether they’re looking to “age in place” within their homes or are adapting an environment to be friendlier for someone with a disability. AHIA can also help you locate CEAC-credentialed specialists near you.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) administers the CAPS credential. To find a builder or remodeling professional in your neighborhood, start here. You’ll be able to find your local home builders association, and from there, you can narrow your search to find a local specialist, such as someone who specializes in 55+ Housing or in remodeling.

Common-Sense Solutions for Every Bathroom

While there are so many bathroom accessibility products precisely so you can pick and choose depending on your needs, budget and lifestyle, there are also some common-sense ways to make any bathroom safer for anyone:

  • Clear a wide path to the bathroom to reduce the risks of falling.
  • Make sure bath mats and rugs have nonslip surfaces.
  • Provide good lighting—and when visiting the bathroom at night, turn on the lights.
  • De-clutter your bathroom by removing unnecessary items from the floors, tubs, cabinets and counters.
  • Wipe up moisture on floors and counters promptly.
  • Adjust water heater settings to prevent scalding, which can be a hazard not just for people with reduced sensation, but also for children and seniors.
  • Make sure soap, shampoo, towels, robes and other supplies are easily within reach so no stretching or reaching is necessary.