The Textile Service Association (TSA) is warning that thousands of workers are at risk from inadequately cared for PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), because it is being washed at home.
It says that the care of textile-based PPE and workwear needs to be better understood, not only by employers but also by the workforce. Many employees across industries are asked to maintain the protective clothing provided to them. This is despite the fact that domestic washing machines are inadequate in terms of the controls needed to keep to the manufacturer’s requirements for maintaining the PPE.
Shyju Skariah, technical services manager at the TSA, looks at the critical issues surrounding PPE.
The Different Types of PPE
PPE with the following primary safety attributes/applications makes up the majority of these types of workwear products, and their performance is governed by the standards listed.
- Welding – BS EN ISO 11611:2015
- Heat and flame – BS EN ISO 11612:2015
- Chemical splash –BS EN 13034:2005
- High visibility –BS EN ISO 20471:2013
- Electric arc (UV) – BS EN IEC 61482-1-1:2019
- Electro-static – BS EN 1149-5:2018
- Healthcare surgical clothing and drapes – BS EN 13795
- Medical devices for sterile healthcare products – ISO 13485:2016
The PPE workwear manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that the fabric and the garment have been constructed so as to comply with the
standard, and ensure it would pass any relevant test procedure. Such PPE will carry an approved CE mark (or UKCA mark) to indicate compliance.
There are reports of some employers providing washing rooms for employees to maintain PPE, but again these lack the right processes and materials to effectively care for the articles. For example, the British Standard ISO 15797 specifies industrial PPE workwear washing and washing/drying parameters that align with the ISO 30023 qualification symbols for labelling workwear. Most people would have no understanding of this requirement.
What’s important is that the PPE is cared for properly and that this care is logged for traceability and to manage its quality throughout its life.
Looking after PPE
To be able to process and care for PPE, the industrial laundry machines used must be validated for both traceability and their ability to comply with the manufacturer’s care instructions.
The validation will also confirm that the PPE will retain its protective attributes for:
- the number of cleaning cycles claimed by manufacturer
- the soiling levels anticipated in the contract
The key variables in the cleaning process are then identified in order to continue monitoring between validations. These variables include:
- the level and type of soiling
- the cleaning load weight
- the main wash temperature
- the main wash time
- the concentrations of detergent and chemicals
An audit trail is then created to ensure the efficacy of the PPE. This combines British and International product test methods, and documentation from manufacture and processing of the fabric. Such an audit trail will include:
- product certification
- proper assessment of the application of use
- education and training of the employer and the PPE wearer
- tracking of service history in laundering and wear (frequency of return, rewashes, repairs etc.)
A quality assessment (QA) system should start with the QA representative establishing the communication with employer and gaining answers to the following considerations.
- The (H&S) assessment of the wearer’s job function
- The selection of the appropriate PPE
- The frequency of change matched to
- The anticipated soiling levels in respect of
- The manufacturer’s processing guidelines for maintaining PPE attributes
The Cleaning Process
The manufacturer of the PPE is legally responsible for supplying information on its care and maintenance. This will include information on the circumstances which could lead to a reduction in the protective attributes of the PPE. Laundry service providers will understand the processes needed to maintain the PPE as fit for purpose throughout its life. In fact, industrial laundries develop specific cleaning processes, depending on the soiling characteristics and frequency of change in particular applications.
Industrial laundries usually offer an appropriate QA scheme as part of their service. This assures the customer that the service meets, and will continue to meet, the application. This continual assessment and monitoring of PPE is vitally important and can be problematic for employers who may not understand their responsibilities fully.
Commercial laundries have been playing a central role for many industries to establish the effective quality management and traceability required to keep protective equipment
fit for purpose. Sectors as varied as automotive, or healthcare, rely heavily on commercial laundries to look after their workers’ PPE. Why commercial laundries? Not only because they know it’s the safest way, but also because it means the PPE lasts longer, and so it protects their investment.
The conditions required to care for the many different fabric and garment specifications need significant levels of fine tuning to get things right. PPE is worn to protect the user from various types and degrees of soiling – these need to be taken into account, too.
Commercial laundries calibrate chemicals and temperature conditions to handle varying levels of soiling. Surfactants, complexing agents, enzymes, chelating agents, foam inhibitors, and several other chemical components are introduced to reduce the surface tension and thoroughly wet the textiles, to manage water hardness, to remove protein stains, to remove heavy metals, and many other processes not mentioned here. Laundries also use specialised systems compatible with the demands of PPE, such as effective, gentler alkalinity systems that achieve excellent results at lower pH levels and lower temperatures.
TSA warns that disposable PPE does not provide a sustainable answer to the issue. Predominantly used in healthcare, it is incredibly wasteful. For example, a reusable gown used to protect healthcare frontline workers can be hygienically washed and reused around 75 times – and at end of life it may be recycled. A single-use PPE gown gets used once and then becomes clinical waste that requires specialist disposal.
The Domestic Wash Issue
Care instructions from manufacturers for different types of soiling will often be based on a combination of temperature, time and mechanical action. For example, the time requirement for one particular stage of the washing process may be set at a specific temperature for a specific time, such as four minutes. It is vital that the laundry equipment is able to reach the temperature quickly, and to hold it there throughout those four minutes before moving on to the next stage of the process.
Above are temperature traces comparing the wash programmes in domestic and industrial machines. They illustrate the difference between the temperatures reached and maintained within the corresponding programmes. The domestic process took around 3060 seconds or 51 minutes for the main wash compared to the commercial machine at about 1400 seconds or about 23 minutes. The commercial process is able to get to 65°C rapidly and hold the temperature allowing it to fully achieve thermal disinfection and soil removal in a minimal time. On the other hand, the domestic machine does not maintain the required temperature. This makes it difficult to know for certain whether the garment has been indeed disinfected. Also, the domestic machine takes much longer to get to this temperature resulting in a much longer process. The wear and tear of garments is a function of mechanical action in the wash, and a longer process will result in more damage to the garment.
This shows how a ‘60°C’ wash programme in a domestic machine may just about reach 60°C, but only for a few seconds, meaning that the washing load will be inadequately cleaned.
“we need to ensure people using PPE are safe. Workforces deserve to be protected”
The maintenance of a high temperature is likely to be a critical factor in the washing process, especially where microbial disinfection maybe a key concern.
The specialist fabrics used in the various types of PPE need to be maintained and cared for using adequately stable washing processes. Without the stability of these washing processes the PPE will be unfit for its intended purpose and may not protect the worker as it is meant to.
Managing and Maintaining PPE
When it comes to managing and maintaining PPE, there are a number of issues that need to be considered. Laundry suppliers and textile rental companies can help with these. For example, garment sizing and shrinkage, especially for natural fibre workwear, can make compliance with the PPE regulations very difficult for an employer. It is very important that the right emblems and safety notices are used on the PPE. Equally, it is vital that any repairs to the garments are done correctly using appropriate materials – an obvious example being the use of fire retardant thread to repair fire retardant PPE.
There is also the issue of how much the PPE degrades over its working life, and the need to monitor this. Allied to this is the need to carefully manage the continuation of supply of protective workwear, as garments are lost, condemned or withdrawn from service.
Staff training is also vital. Anyone wearing PPE needs to understand that abuse of garments, such as using PPE for purposes other than intended, or unauthorised modifications (cutting the sleeves off, for example) is absolutely forbidden.
Removing sleeves is fairly obvious, but not all damage is as easy to spot, which is why so many employers rely on the level of monitoring provided by commercial laundries. For example, PPE can be damaged by home washing, which a laundry would be able to pick up on. It is vital for health and safety to ensure that garments that are being used are not damaged in any way.
Sometimes the evidence of this is very hard to see. For example, fire retardant PPE that has been used in a fire event will need careful examining to ensure it is still safe to use (in addition, it’s the wearer’s duty of care to declare the level of exposure). Another source of potential risk is PPE wearers who don’t control their own PPE correctly, for example by using a set of garments unevenly so that a particular part of the set – such as the gloves – is used more than the rest.
These types of scenarios are where the help of a managed laundry service and textile provider will prove invaluable for an employer. Laundry operators have the expertise to help employers in all sectors to ensure that the right protective products are selected, together with an appropriate monitoring and maintenance regime.
The Bottom Line
Employers need to carefully consider how they can ensure that their workforce’s protective equipment is maintained competently and to the manufacturer’s specification. We need to ensure people using PPE are safe. Workforces deserve to be protected.
The TSA represents the UK’s textile services industry, including commercial and industrial laundries and textiles rental companies. Many of these supply, manage and maintain protective workwear for a variety of industries. Shyju Skariah is technical services manager at the TSA.
The PPE workwear working group is one of TSA’s ‘active knowledge networks’ that Shyju facilitates on behalf of the industry. As well as overseeing TSA’s programmes and portfolios, he also facilitates the development of British and International standards for the textile services industry. The TSA knowledge networks are the leading best practice sharing platform in the textiles service industry and cover a variety of areas, ranging from technical standards, health and safety, sustainability, industry training and apprenticeship to research and development.
The TSA is the trade association for the textile care services industry. The TSA represents commercial laundry and textile rental businesses. Membership ranges from family-run operations through to large, multi-national companies. Visit www.tsa-uk.org for more information.