Feature: DGH laundry handles 10 million items a year

Staff sort out the washed sheets from the tumble dryers
Staff sort out the washed sheets from the tumble dryers

WITH superbugs and hospital infections often dominating the headlines, the Herald’s Richard Morris headed to the DGH to speak to the small army of staff whose job it is to make sure everything gets cleaned. And cleaned. And cleaned!

IT is the one department that everyone who visits the DGH will benefit from but which not a single patient will ever set foot in.

Managers John Jansen and Tony Hines at the laundry.

Managers John Jansen and Tony Hines at the laundry.

Hidden away in the bowels of the hospital, far away from the front desk, the accident and emergency and the usually full-to-bursting wards lies the laundry.

But if you are imagining a row of washing machines and a tumble drier of two, think again. This is cleaning on an entirely different scale.

As well as all the gowns, sheets and linen from the DGH, the team of 42 hard-working members of staff also tackle tonnes of bundles from The Conquest in Hastings as well as host of other sites from across East Sussex Healthcare Trust and a long list of private clients. Put simply, if it is from the health service locally and needs cleaning, it will go to the DGH.

Staff estimate the laundry scrubs its way through more than 10 million pieces of linen a year – a total which works out at a flabbergasting 833,000 items a month. That is a mammoth 240,000 bit and bobs per single member of staff.

Sue Worth prepares a sterile Genesis box.

Sue Worth prepares a sterile Genesis box.

The laundry looks more like an Area-51 style aircraft hanger, with mountains of machinery and towers of dirty washing which, you could easily believe, could lead you as high as the Moon.

But, despite the noise, the cavernous setting and the hectic never-ending nature of the work, it is a sense of almost military style order which greets the rare visitor.

Arriving in bundles, all soiled linen is put a conveyor belt before being sorted into piles further down the line. It is then fed through thermal disinfectant machines at a temperature of 80 degrees, for 12 minutes a time.

Once out, it is dried, folded and packaged away before being dispatched back to whence it came. It may sound simple, but it is anything but.

And, while it is complicated, it is also arduous.

Around 90 tonnes of linen goes through each station a week so staff have to be physically fit. But, as manager John Jansen explained, the hard work does have its benefits. “Most of our sorting team never get ill. I think it is because they are exposed to so many germs that their immune system is more built up.

“We have a great team here and they all work very hard.”

Just a stone’s throw away is the sterilisation and disinfectant unit – the arm of which handles the cleaning of surgical equipment.As Tony Hines revealed, the process has moved on from the days of simply running the scalpels and scissors under a hot tap.

Working in a completely sterile environment, 80 fully trained members of staff work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, cleaning and inspecting more than 100,000 items every seven days.

These come in a variety of packs, each designed and stocked for different operations, be it hip replacements, heart bypasses or brain surgery.

As if their job wasn’t hard enough, different surgeons demand different tools for the same operation, depending on personal preference. The upshot is that everyone working in the sterilisation unit has to learn to recognise and evaluate thousands of pieces of equipment.

Mr Hines explained, “Every single item is treated the same. We handle everything as if it is highly infected so that we have the highest standards. We certainly don’t take any chances.”

Part of Charlotte Peacock’s job was to keep a watchful eye on five large steam units, called autoclaves.

Every item which has been sorted is placed in one of the autoclaves, sealed and packed tightly. It is then subjected to temperatures of between 134 and 137 degrees as part of a one hour process.After it comes out the other side, items are not touched by anyone other than sterile workers before being sent out to be used.

A new high-tech endoscopy cleaning room has been added to the department in the last few weeks, allowing the staff to clean upwards of 120 scopes a week – a huge increase on the volume being processed at the turn of the year.

According to Mr Hines, plans are afoot to branch out into cleaning robotic operating equipment – a move which he believes will bring in more contracts for the team.

“That is definitely the future,” he said, “robotics are becoming more common.

“Surgery of that type is less invasive and has a quicker recovery time and if we are successful [in getting the sterilisation equipment] we will then be able to attract more business.”

Not every hospital has laundry and sterilisation units, and few can boast of having them on a par with that of the DGH. In the last year the disinfectant unit turned over £3.6million, the laundry £3.1million - figures which are music to the ears of under-pressure NHS bosses.

Most people may not be aware of the work which goes on, but it is clear that the hospital would not be able to run without the laundry and sterilisation teams.

Perhaps people should spare them a thought next time they are faced with a basket full of ironing. Like painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the job of the DGH team is never done. At least your load stops after a few pants and socks!