MISSION, Kan. — Each year, organizations within the healthcare system spend hundreds of millions of dollars disposing of healthcare linen as infectious or “red bag” waste or regulated medical waste (RMW). These funds are misspent, and could be saved with a few simple safeguards, according to the Association for Linen Management (ALM) and the American Reusable Textile Association (ARTA).
The main problem is a lack of education on OSHA regulations for the proper handling of healthcare linen contaminated by blood/bodily fluids. This gap in understanding has caused many healthcare facilities to err on the side of caution and train staff to dispose of contaminated linen as red-bag waste, the associations say.
Many healthcare workers would never consider putting contaminated linen in their own washing machines at home. They are probably unaware that professional laundry operators use state-of-the-art equipment and chemicals to successfully clean millions of pounds of dirty, soiled and contaminated linen on a daily basis.
Members of both ALM and ARTA—healthcare laundry operators—estimate that annually as much as 25% of their linen leaves client locations as red-bag waste. A survey last summer of 200 nurses and healthcare professionals at five healthcare systems in the U.S. revealed that 95% had recently disposed of at least one linen item as red-bag waste—even though linen is reusable.
When hospitals allow contaminated linen to be disposed of as red-bag waste, they unnecessarily spend precious dollars on waste disposal fees, and then incur additional costs to replace linen, ALM and ARTA report. In an era of spiraling healthcare costs, this is one area where hospitals can easily and substantially decrease their operating expenses.
That’s why ALM and ARTA began researching the red-bag situation last year, and asked OSHA to confirm proper protocols for handling healthcare linen soiled with blood.
In late October, OHSA sent a “Letter of Interpretation” to the agencies that confirmed that linen contaminated by blood or bodily fluids is not trash or waste. The letter also reaffirmed existing OSHA regulations, which specify that any linen saturated with blood or other potentially infectious materials (OPIM) should be placed in impermeable bags. A facility’s laundry personnel then picks up the bagged contaminated linen, washes the linen, and delivers clean linen back for additional use. The letter also verifies the proper protocols for handling contaminated linen, and states that bags used to collect contaminated linen must be correctly labeled.
With OSHA’s recent letter, both associations are developing an industry campaign to create greater awareness of the costly practice of linen being disposed of as red-bag waste. In addition to sharing the information with healthcare associations and facilities, ALM and ARTA plan to provide education materials for their members to help train and educate healthcare clients on the correct, less costly methods for handling contaminated linen.
“We hope having this confirmation will provide laundry operators the evidence they need to shift thinking of healthcare risk managers and administrators that educate staff to treat contaminated linen as red-bag waste. We also are partnering with Practice Greenhealth and AHE to help educate their members,” says ARTA Executive Director Nancy Jenkins.