Large institutions that require a constant flow of clean linen, working-clothing or uniform, will often employ the services of an industrial laundry. Hospitals, prisons and hotels, for instance, will usually have their own laundry departments. The organized collection, laundering and timely delivery of textiled service ware is essential to the operation of the institution.
When linen is sent to be laundered, it goes through six stages. The first three stages are called "soiled side" operations, since they occur before the linen is actually washed. The last three are called "clean side" operations, since they involve the handling of clean linen.
1. Soiled Retrieval
In this step, the institution's linens are collected by laundry personnel and returned to the laundry facility. Members of the institution's housekeeping staff will place the soiled linen at a collection point, usually by dropping it down a laundry chute. Laundry workers will then collect the soiled linen, place it in carts reserved for soiled linen and transport it to the laundry facility.
Linen retrieval poses a problem, especially in health care institutions. Soiled linen can be contaminated with bloodborne and airborne pathogens. For this reason, employees who retireve soiled linen are required to use personal protective gear and standard safety precautions. This problem is especially prevalent in hospitals. Prior to sorting, the linen must be covered to prevent the spread of airborne germs.
2. Soil Sorting
At this stage, the retrieved linen is unloaded and sorted according to item type. Different items often require different washing formulas. Also, later stages in the process require the linen to be pre-sorted, since it is handled batch by batch. Heavy or biohazardous stains such as blood and feces may require longer wash times and stronger formulas. Thus it is inadvisable to mix different items of linen in the same wash batch. Large institutions often use a production-line method for soil sorting, with several full-time employees assigned to the task.
Since soiled linen may be contaminated with biohazards or sharp objects, employees involved in the sorting process are required to use personal protective equipment and standard safety precautions.
Smaller items tend to "hide" among larger items. For this reason, some sorting goes on during the washing, processing and packaging stages.
This is the stage in which the laundry is actually washed. The sorted linen is weighed according to the washing machine's load limit. Large washing machines are used, usually operated by a certified washer operator. The washer operator loads and unloads the washer, decides what is to be washed according to the laundry's schedule, and monitors the chemical levels in the water. Since modern tunnel washers monitor their own chemical levels and unload linen directly into the laundry's "clean area", the operator is required only to load the linen.
Proper washing depends on five factors, summarized by the mnemonic WATCH: Water quality, mechanical Agitation, Time, Chemical concentration and Heat. These five factors work together. The purer the water and the fresher the chemicals, the cleaner the laundry will be. Mechanical action exposes the surface area of the linen to the water and chemicals, ensuring that the item is thoroughly soaked. It also tends to dislodge stains. Heat helps the chemicals to react with the stains. The longer the item is exposed to heat, chemicals and mechanical action, the cleaner it will be.
Over the past twenty years, many industrial laundries have switched from conventional washers to tunnel washers, also called continuous-batch washers. Since tunnel washers don't have to be stopped for loading and unloading of linen, they provide a more continuous flow of clean laundry. Higher-volume facilities, which may process over 15,000 pounds of linen per day, often rely heavily on tunnel washers.
In this stage, the clean linen is dried, ironed and folded. Some items, such as towels and blankets, are put through a dryer until they are no longer damp, then sent to mechanical folders. "Wetwork" items, such as sheets, are sent through steam-powered ironers which dry, press and fold them.
Dryers use hot air and mechanical action to evaporate the moisture and chemicals from the linen prior to folding. Heated air is forced through pores into a spinning central cylinder called the drum. As the cylinder constantly spins, the linen inside tumbles, exposing the surface area to heat which evaporates the moisture. The air temperature must be carefully controlled. If it isn't hot enough, the linen won't be thoroughly dried. If it is too hot, the linen may overdry, damaging the product and creating a fire hazard.
Ironers use heavy steam-heated rollers to dry the linen while pressing out wrinkles.
Folders use mechanical action to fold the linen into shapes that are easily stored and handled. Folders come in two varieties: large-piece for blankets and other large items, and small-piece for smaller items such as towels or pads. The more compact the shape into which the item is folded, the greater the amount of linen that can be packed into a limited storage space.
Some items, such as wash cloths, may be too small to be handled mechanically. These items must be packaged by hand.
In this step, the processed linen is prepared for delivery. Individual orders are filled, based on the needs and requests of the laundry's customers, then sent to the laundry's main distribution points and storage areas. Linen not used for orders is placed in storage areas, giving the facility a reserve of clean laundry.
In this step, trained delivery people transport the clean linen back to the customers. This is a skilled position, since the delivery person must have a thorough knowledge of both laundry operation and the principles of good customer service. In hospitals, delivery people must be familiar with patient relations, confidentiality policies and hospice. Large institutions will usually employ several full-time delivery people.
The most common accidents in industrial laundries involve chemical exposure, sharp objects left in soiled linen, slips from wet floors, exposure to pathogens in contaminated linen, and body parts being stuck in machinery. While these problems can usually be avoided by standard precautions and a little common sense, they can and do happen. Production workers have a saying: "Common sense isn't that common."
Exposure to soil and pathogens can be limited by two things. One, of course, is the use of personal protective equipment: barrier gowns, gloves, eyewear, foot coverings and face masks. These items should be worn when handling soiled linen. Infections can also be eliminated by proper hand-washing with antibacterial soap. Employees should wash their hands after handling any linen, whether soiled or clean.
Since the noise levels in industrial laundries can be quite high, earmuffs and disposable earplugs are often issued. Hearing protection is essential.
Exposure to chemicals is also common. Since washers require a constant stream of detergent, bleach and other chemicals, the supply must be constantly replenished. Laundries are required to provide a material safety data sheet, or MSDS, for all chemicals used in the facility. Many laundries require their machine operators to be familiar with HAZMAT, if not fully certified.
With the constant workload and harsh working conditions, employees can easily become short-tempered. This occasionally leads to problems with violence and workplace bullying. For this reason, laundry managers must be competent disciplinarians, ready to deal with employees who have attitude problems.
Laundry machines use high-pressure steam and dangerous chemicals. Poor maintenance can cause injuries such as severe burns and chemical exposures. Hoses, steam lines and other machine parts must be checked and replaced regularly.
Like any good business, a laundry's operation depends on good communication. Customers must file their orders in a timely manner. Delivery people and order fillers must keep records of the types and quantities of linens used. Managers must be informed of production difficulties and attitude problems. Any breakdown in communication will hinder the laundry's productivity.
Clean linen and soiled linen should never be mixed. For this reason, most laundry facilities have two major work areas, the "soiled area" and the "clean area". These areas are usually separated by a wall. Separate carts are designated for clean and soiled linen. Linen usually passes from the soiled area to the clean area through the washers. Any clean linen that comes into contact with soiled linen or with carts used to transport soiled linen is considered soiled and must be re-washed. Laundry workers who handle soiled linen are required to wash their hands before working with clean linen.
Wet linen storage.
Wet or soiled linen that is allowed to sit for an extended period of time may become permanently wrinkled. Worse, wet linen stored in a humid area may mildew, requiring replacement.
Dust can and does settle on clean linen. For this reason, clean linen left on shelves and in delivery carts should be covered. While many laundries use dust covers specifically made for this purpose, others will improvise, using sheets or blankets.
Every laundry, regardless of size, has a limited amount of cart space for storing linen. For this reason, the laundry's carts must be constantly recycled. The moment a cart is emptied, it is returned to the laundry to be filled with another order. If it is designated for soiled linen, it should be emptied at the laundry facility, then sent back to the collection point for another load.
Each trip through the wash cycle places wear and tear on the linen. Thus, a major laundry facility needs a constant stream of new linens coming in to replace worn-out items. Items that are not too badly damaged may be set aside for something other than their original purpose. (Permanently stained or torn blankets, for instance, may be used to line floor areas being waxed.) However, they will still need to be replaced in the linen stream.
From its major computerized machines down to the wheels on its carts, every laundry facility depends on mechanical and electric devices. These devices require a range of constant maintenance by skilled and certified technicians. Poorly maintained equipment can limit productivity and may even cause or contribute to injuries.
As in any business, any job that was not done properly the first time must be redone. Items that weren't thoroughly cleaned must be rewashed. Orders that were filled using the wrong supplies must be re-filled. These are two of the many examples of rework in a laundry.
In recent years, it has become standard practice in prisons for prisoners to deposit personal laundry in mesh bags. The advantage of this system is that the mesh bags keep personal items separate in large loads during the wash cycle. The disadvantage is that prisoners tend to overstuff the bags. This inhibits mechanical agitation while preventing water and chemicals from reaching soiled linen. The result is poorer quality linen.
If tunnel washers have one noteworthy defect, it is the tendency for the tunnel to become blocked when the washer is overloaded. When the tunnel is blocked, the washer must be stopped and allowed to drain, then the blockage must be removed manually. A tunnel jam may cost the laundry several hours of production time. Operators can prevent tunnel jams by paying strict attention to the washer's load limits.
In recent years, many large institutions have "outsourced" the management of their laundry facilities and other environmental services to management companies such as Aramark and Sunlight. This has led to some debate as to whether the advantages of outsourcing outweigh the disadvantages.
For an institutional laundry, there are many disadvantages of outsourcing. Outsource company managers tend to move from facility to facility and from one outsourced department to the next, seldom gaining enough training or experience to become competent laundry managers. A manager who knows how to run a housekeeping department doesn't necessarily know how to run a laundry. If the institution is a nonprofit organization, the outsource company may not be eligible for the institution's discounts on supplies, thus raising production costs. As for the employees, they must be subjected to two possibly conflicting sets of rules: the policies of the institution and those of the outsource company.