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PPE in the Textile Rental Industry

COVID-19 increased use of masks, hand sanitizer, plastic barriers

SANTA MARIA, Calif. — Do you remember at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the news anchors were all trying to figure out how to use the term PPE (personal protective equipment) amid the dire shortage of the N-95 hospital-grade masks?

The opening for every evening’s broadcast for several months was PPE as it related to COVID-19. And while the anchors were finally able to use the term as it pertained to healthcare workers, I’m not certain they understand the broader use and history of PPE in industry.

Before we look at the changes that may have taken place in the use of PPE in the textile rental industry, we need to understand what PPE is and how it is used. 

Personal protective equipment is considered the least effective method in the safety hierarchy of control, which follows in the least effective to most effective order: PPE (protect the employee), administrative control (change the way people work), engineering control (isolate people from the hazard), substitution (replace the hazard) and elimination (physically remove the hazard).

Although it is the least effective means of protection, PPE must be utilized in the processing of linens. This is due to the fact that viruses and bacteria are present in soiled linens and can’t be eliminated or engineered out of the process.

When we think of the exposure to these pathogens, we tend to think of linen items used in a healthcare setting. The truth is that pathogens may and do exist on any linen item that is returned to the laundry in a soiled state.

The very fact that textile rental companies serve the public exposes laundry employees to potential viruses and bacteria. The laundry has no control over the health of their customers’ clients and must employ universal precautions (i.e., ensure that all linens are handled as if they contain potentially contagious pathogens). 

It is not sufficient that PPE be provided but that all personnel to whom it is provided be trained in proper use, fit and exposure. The training and PPE itself must be certified in order to meet the regulatory standards.

That made me look into the PPE used in the textile rental industry and how the pandemic may have changed the use of PPE in the industry. It’s not my intention to discuss all PPE used in a laundry but only those items that are provided to prevent the spread of illness.

As it turns out, there was very little that changed in the use of PPE. Laundries, for the most part, had already adopted best management practices using PPE to ensure that universal precautions were being followed.

Using the laundry’s exposure control plan to bloodborne pathogens, operators were able to determine which positions had exposure. The jobs at greatest risk of exposure to airborne and bloodborne pathogens were already using PPE to protect soil sorters, washroom operators, custodians, maintenance workers and route personnel.

Personnel sorting soil from any source, either healthcare, hospitality, or food and beverage, were supplied with surgical masks, hair coverings, safety glasses, barrier gowns, barrier gloves and shoe covers.

Washroom personnel were also provided PPE appropriate to the exposure. Route personnel had already been supplied with hand sanitizers, barrier gowns and barrier gloves.

What did change in the industry was the introduction of masks for all personnel, regardless of position due to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations as well as local, state and federal mandates. Masks became essential for the customer-facing employees: route personnel and sales and service personnel.

In addition, hand hygiene took on greater importance with hand sanitizers being installed at multiple locations within the facility. The placement of these units was to encourage the use of the hand sanitizers as employees returned to work from breaks.

It also allowed access at strategic times during the day, especially if the employees were handling clean linen items. This was not only to protect the employee from bacteria or viruses that may be present but also to prevent contamination of clean linen items.

The textile rental industry also pivoted in response to the recommendations for social distancing with the introduction of barriers to prevent workers from exposure to airborne pathogens.

Laundry workers, especially those who work in the soil sort department, on small-piece flatwork ironers, at garment steam tunnels and others whose jobs require them to be in close proximity, were provided with plastic or metal barriers between stations to prevent transmission.

Where barriers were unable to be installed or found to provide insufficient protection, the number of persons working in these areas was reduced to ensure distancing was possible. 

During the time the pandemic was at its height in terms of surges, etc., business slowed substantially allowing the laundries to work with fewer employees. That made distancing a greater possibility.

The residual benefit to the construction of barriers is that they remain in place (or available) to be used if needed in the future. While we are hopeful that they will not be needed, the investment has been made.

After exploring the better options for protecting the health and safety of their employees, including elimination, substitution, engineering and administrative changes, laundry operators should develop a checklist of appropriate PPE that serves as the last option.

The appropriate PPE for soil sorters should be the following items: barrier gowns, masks, safety glasses, hair coverings (hardhat, bouffant hair net or cap), shoe covers and needle-resistant gloves.

Appropriate PPE for washroom operators include the following items: barrier gowns (separate gowns for loading clean and removing soil items), barrier gloves, hair coverings (hardhat if sling loading) and masks if handling the linen items directly. 

The PPE recommended for route personnel is as follows: barrier gowns, barrier gloves, hand sanitizer and masks if handling loose items.

As a recap, the textile rental industry responded quickly to the emergence of the pandemic because it already had a process in place to prevent illness.

Disposable PPE became an issue for the industry due to the supply chain shortage issue but because operators were using reusable items wherever possible, the employees had the greatest amount of protection. Operators pivoted to quickly provide protection to employees.

PPE in the Textile Rental Industry

(Image licensed by Ingram Image)

Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Matt Poe at [email protected] .