G. Laundry and Bedding

Guidelines for Environmental Infection Control in Health-Care Facilities (2003)

At a glance

Laundry and bedding guidelines from the Guidelines for Environmental Infection Control in Health-Care Facilities (2003).

1. General Information

Laundry in a health-care facility may include bed sheets and blankets, towels, personal clothing, patient apparel, uniforms, scrub suits, gowns, and drapes for surgical procedures.1245 Although contaminated textiles and fabrics in health-care facilities can be a source of substantial numbers of pathogenic microorganisms, reports of health-care associated diseases linked to contaminated fabrics are so few in number that the overall risk of disease transmission during the laundry process likely is negligible. When the incidence of such events are evaluated in the context of the volume of items laundered in health-care settings (estimated to be 5 billion pounds annually in the United States),1246 existing control measures (e.g., standard precautions) are effective in reducing the risk of disease transmission to patients and staff. Therefore, use of current control measures should be continued to minimize the contribution of contaminated laundry to the incidence of health-care associated infections. The control measures described in this section of the guideline are based on principles of hygiene, common sense, and consensus guidance; they pertain to laundry services utilized by health-care facilities, either inhouse or contract, rather than to laundry done in the home.

2. Epidemiology and General Aspects of Infection Control

Contaminated textiles and fabrics often contain high numbers of microorganisms from body substances, including blood, skin, stool, urine, vomitus, and other body tissues and fluids. When textiles are heavily contaminated with potentially infective body substances, they can contain bacterial loads of 106 –108 CFU/100 cm2 of fabric.1247 Disease transmission attributed to health-care laundry has involved contaminated fabrics that were handled inappropriately (i.e., the shaking of soiled linens). Bacteria (Salmonella spp., Bacillus cereus), viruses (hepatitis B virus [HBV]), fungi (Microsporum canis), and ectoparasites (scabies) presumably have been transmitted from contaminated textiles and fabrics to workers via

  1. direct contact or
  2. aerosols of contaminated lint generated from sorting and handling contaminated textiles.1248–1252

In these events, however, investigations could not rule out the possibility that some of these reported infections were acquired from community sources. Through a combination of soil removal, pathogen removal, and pathogen inactivation, contaminated laundry can be rendered hygienically clean. Hygienically clean laundry carries negligible risk to health-care workers and patients, provided that the clean textiles, fabric, and clothing are not inadvertently contaminated before use.

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OSHA defines contaminated laundry as "laundry which has been soiled with blood or other potentially infectious materials or may contain sharps."967 The purpose of the laundry portion of the standard is to protect the worker from exposure to potentially infectious materials during collection, handling, and sorting of contaminated textiles through the use of personal protective equipment, proper work practices, containment, labeling, hazard communication, and ergonomics.

Experts are divided regarding the practice of transporting clothes worn at the workplace to the healthcare worker's home for laundering. Although OSHA regulations prohibit home laundering of items that are considered personal protective apparel or equipment (e.g., laboratory coats),967 experts disagree about whether this regulation extends to uniforms and scrub suits that are not contaminated with blood or other potentially infectious material. Health-care facility policies on this matter vary and may be inconsistent with recommendations of professional organizations.1253, 1254 Uniforms without blood or body substance contamination presumably do not differ appreciably from street clothes in the degree and microbial nature of soilage. Home laundering would be expected to remove this level of soil adequately. However, if health-care facilities require the use of uniforms, they should either make provisions to launder them or provide information to the employee regarding infection control and cleaning guidelines for the item based on the tasks being performed at the facility. Health-care facilities should address the need to provide this service and should determine the frequency for laundering these items. In a recent study examining the microbial contamination of medical students' white coats, the students perceived the coats as "clean" as long as the garments were not visibly contaminated with body substances, even after wearing the coats for several weeks.1255 The heaviest bacterial load was found on the sleeves and the pockets of these garments; the organisms most frequently isolated were Staphylococcus aureus, diphtheroids, and Acinetobacter spp.1255 Presumably, the sleeves of the coat may make contact with a patient and potentially serve to transfer environmentally stable microorganisms among patients. In this study, however, surveillance was not conducted among patients to detect new infections or colonizations. The students did, however, report that they would likely replace their coats more frequently and regularly if clean coats were provided.1255 Apart from this study, which documents the presence of pathogenic bacteria on health-care facility clothing, reports of infections attributed to either the contact with such apparel or with home laundering have been rare. 1256, 1257

Laundry services for health-care facilities are provided either in-house (i.e., on-premise laundry [OPL]), co-operatives (i.e., those entities owned and operated by a group of facilities), or by off-site commercial laundries. In the latter, the textiles may be owned by the health-care facility, in which case the processor is paid for laundering only. Alternatively, the textiles may be owned by the processor who is paid for every piece laundered on a "rental" fee. The laundry facility in a health-care setting should be designed for efficiency in providing hygienically clean textiles, fabrics, and apparel for patients and staff. Guidelines for laundry construction and operation for health-care facilities, including nursing facilities, have been published.120, 1258 The design and engineering standards for existing facilities are those cited in the AIA edition in effect during the time of the facility's construction.120 A laundry facility is usually partitioned into two separate areas – a "dirty" area for receiving and handling the soiled laundry and a "clean" area for processing the washed items.1259 To minimize the potential for recontaminating cleaned laundry with aerosolized contaminated lint, areas receiving contaminated textiles should be at negative air pressure relative to the clean areas.1260–1262 Laundry areas should have handwashing facilities readily available to workers. Laundry workers should wear appropriate personal protective equipment (e.g., gloves and protective garments) while sorting soiled fabrics and textiles.967 Laundry equipment should be used and maintained according to the manufacturer's instructions to prevent microbial contamination of the system.1250, 1263 Damp textiles should not be left in machines overnight.1250

3. Collecting, Transporting, and Sorting Contaminated Textiles and Fabrics

The laundry process starts with the removal of used or contaminated textiles, fabrics, and/or clothing from the areas where such contamination occurred, including but not limited to patients' rooms, surgical/operating areas, and laboratories. Handling contaminated laundry with a minimum of agitation can help prevent the generation of potentially contaminated lint aerosols in patient-care areas.967, 1259 Sorting or rinsing contaminated laundry at the location where contamination occurred is prohibited by OSHA.967 Contaminated textiles and fabrics are placed into bags or other appropriate containment in this location; these bags are then securely tied or otherwise closed to prevent leakage.967 Single bags of sufficient tensile strength are adequate for containing laundry, but leak-resistant containment is needed if the laundry is wet and capable of soaking through a cloth bag.1264 Bags containing contaminated laundry must be clearly identified with labels, color-coding, or other methods so that health-care workers handle these items safely, regardless of whether the laundry is transported within the facility or destined for transport to an off-site laundry service.967

Typically, contaminated laundry originating in isolation areas of the hospital is segregated and handled with special practices; however, few, if any, cases of health-care associated infection have been linked to this source.1265 Single-blinded studies have demonstrated that laundry from isolation areas is no more heavily contaminated with microorganisms than laundry from elsewhere in the hospital.1266 Therefore, adherence to standard precautions when handling contaminated laundry in isolation areas and minimizing agitation of the contaminated items are considered sufficient to prevent the dispersal of potentially infectious aerosols.6

Contaminated textiles and fabrics in bags can be transported by cart or chute.1258, 1262 Laundry chutes require proper design, maintenance, and use, because the piston-like action of a laundry bag traveling in the chute can propel airborne microbial contaminants throughout the facility.1267–1269 Laundry chutes should be maintained under negative air pressure to prevent the spread of microorganisms from floor to floor. Loose, contaminated pieces of laundry should not be tossed into chutes, and laundry bags should be closed or otherwise secured to prevent the contents from falling out into the chute.1270 Health-care facilities should determine the point in the laundry process at which textiles and fabrics should be sorted. Sorting after washing minimizes the exposure of laundry workers to infective material in soiled fabrics, reduces airborne microbial contamination in the laundry area, and helps to prevent potential percutaneous injuries to personnel.1271 Sorting laundry before washing protects both the machinery and fabrics from hard objects (e.g., needles, syringes, and patients' property) and reduces the potential for recontamination of clean textiles.1272 Sorting laundry before washing also allows for customization of laundry formulas based on the mix of products in the system and types of soils encountered. Additionally, if work flow allows, increasing the amount of segregation by specific product types will usually yield the greatest amount of work efficiency during inspection, folding, and pack-making operations.1253 Protective apparel for the workers and appropriate ventilation can minimize these exposures. 967, 1258–1260 Gloves used for the task of sorting laundry should be of sufficient thickness to minimize sharps injuries.967 Employee safety personnel and industrial hygienists can help to determine the appropriate glove choice.

4. Parameters of the Laundry Process

Fabrics, textiles, and clothing used in health-care settings are disinfected during laundering and generally rendered free of vegetative pathogens (i.e., hygienically clean), but they are not sterile.1273 Laundering cycles consist of flush, main wash, bleaching, rinsing, and souring.1274 Cleaned wet textiles, fabrics, and clothing are then dried, pressed as needed, and prepared (e.g., folded and packaged) for distribution back to the facility. Clean linens provided by an off-site laundry must be packaged prior to transport to prevent inadvertent contamination from dust and dirt during loading, delivery, and unloading. Functional packaging of laundry can be achieved in several ways, including

  1. placing clean linen in a hamper lined with a previously unused liner, which is then closed or covered
  2. placing clean linen in a properly cleaned cart and covering the cart with disposable material or a properly cleaned reusable textile material that can be secured to the cart; and
  3. wrapping individual bundles of clean  textiles in plastic or other suitable material and sealing or taping the bundles.

The antimicrobial action of the laundering process results from a combination of mechanical, thermal, and chemical factors.1271, 1275, 1276 Dilution and agitation in water remove substantial quantities of microorganisms. Soaps and detergents function to suspend soils and also exhibit some microbiocidal properties. Hot water provides an effective means of destroying microorganisms.1277 A temperature of at least 160°F (71°C) for a minimum of 25 minutes is commonly recommended for hot-water washing.2 Water of this temperature can be provided by steam jet or separate booster heater.120 The use of chlorine bleach assures an extra margin of safety.1278, 1279 A total available chlorine residual of 50–150 ppm is usually achieved during the bleach cycle.1277 Chlorine bleach becomes activated at water temperatures of 135°F–145°F (57.2°C–62.7°C). The last of the series of rinse cycles is the addition of a mild acid (i.e., sour) to neutralize any alkalinity in the water supply, soap, or detergent. The rapid shift in pH from approximately 12 to 5 is an effective means to inactivate some microorganisms.1247 Effective removal of residual alkali from fabrics is an important measure in reducing the risk for skin reactions among patients.

Chlorine bleach is an economical, broad-spectrum chemical germicide that enhances the effectiveness of the laundering process. Chlorine bleach is not, however, an appropriate laundry additive for all fabrics. Traditionally, bleach was not recommended for laundering flame-retardant fabrics, linens, and clothing because its use diminished the flame-retardant properties of the treated fabric.1273 However, some modern-day flame retardant fabrics can now tolerate chlorine bleach. Flame-retardant fabrics, whether topically treated or inherently flame retardant, should be thoroughly rinsed during the rinse cycles, because detergent residues are capable of supporting combustion. Chlorine alternatives (e.g., activated oxygen-based laundry detergents) provide added benefits for fabric and color safety in addition to antimicrobial activity. Studies comparing the antimicrobial potencies of chlorine bleach and oxygen-based bleach are needed. Oxygen-based bleach and detergents used in health-care settings should be registered by EPA to ensure adequate disinfection of laundry. Health-care workers should note the cleaning instructions of textiles, fabrics, drapes, and clothing to identify special laundering requirements and appropriate hygienic cleaning options.1278

Although hot-water washing is an effective laundry disinfection method, the cost can be substantial. Laundries are typically the largest users of hot water in hospitals. They consume 50%–75% of the total hot water,1280 representing an average of 10%–15% of the energy used by a hospital. Several studies have demonstrated that lower water temperatures of 71°F–77°F (22°C–25°C) can reduce microbial contamination when the cycling of the washer, the wash detergent, and the amount of laundry additive are carefully monitored and controlled.1247, 1281–1285 Low-temperature laundry cycles rely heavily on the presence of chlorine- or oxygen-activated bleach to reduce the levels of microbial contamination. The selection of hot- or cold-water laundry cycles may be dictated by state health-care facility licensing standards or by other regulation. Regardless of whether hot or cold water is used for washing, the temperatures reached in drying and especially during ironing provide additional significant microbiocidal action.1247 Dryer temperatures and cycle times are dictated by the materials in the fabrics. Man-made fibers (i.e., polyester and polyester blends) require shorter times and lower temperatures.

After washing, cleaned and dried textiles, fabrics, and clothing are pressed, folded, and packaged for transport, distribution, and storage by methods that ensure their cleanliness until use.2 State regulations and/or accrediting standards may dictate the procedures for this activity. Clean/sterile and contaminated textiles should be transported from the laundry to the health-care facility in vehicles (e.g., trucks, vans, and carts) that allow for separation of clean/sterile and contaminated items. Clean/sterile textiles and contaminated textiles may be transported in the same vehicle, provided that the use of physical barriers and/or space separation can be verified to be effective in protecting the clean/sterile items from contamination. Clean, uncovered/unwrapped textiles stored in a clean location for short periods of time (e.g., uncovered and used within a few hours) have not been demonstrated to contribute to increased levels of health-care acquired infection. Such textiles can be stored in convenient places for use during the provision of care, provided that the textiles can be maintained dry and free from soil and body-substance contamination.

In the absence of microbiologic standards for laundered textiles, no rationale exists for routine microbiologic sampling of cleaned health-care textiles and fabrics.1286 Sampling may be used as part of an outbreak investigation if epidemiologic evidence suggests that textiles, fabrics, or clothing are a suspected vehicle for disease transmission. Sampling techniques include aseptically macerating the fabric into pieces and adding these to broth media or using contact plates (RODAC plates) for direct surface sampling.1271, 1286 When evaluating the disinfecting properties of the laundering process specifically, placing pieces of fabric between two membrane filters may help to minimize the contribution of the physical removal of microorganisms.1287

Washing machines and dryers in residential-care settings are more likely to be consumer items rather than the commercial, heavy-duty, large volume units typically found in hospitals and other institutional health-care settings. Although all washing machines and dryers in health-care settings must be properly maintained for performance according to the manufacturer's instructions, questions have been raised about the need to disinfect washers and dryers in residential-care settings. Disinfection of the tubs and tumblers of these machines is unnecessary when proper laundry procedures are followed; these procedures involve

  1. the physical removal of bulk solids (e.g., feces) before the wash/dry cycle and
  2. proper use of temperature, detergent, and laundry additives.

Infection has not been linked to laundry procedures in residential-care facilities, even when consumer versions of detergents and laundry additives are used.

5. Special Laundry Situations

Some textile items (e.g., surgical drapes and reusable gowns) must be sterilized before use and therefore require steam autoclaving after laundering.7 Although the American Academy of Pediatrics in previous guidelines recommended autoclaving for linens in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs), studies on the microbial quality of routinely cleaned NICU linen have not identified any increased risk for infection among the neonates receiving care.1288 Consequently, hygienically clean linens are suitable for use in this setting.997 The use of sterile linens in burn therapy units remains unresolved.

Coated or laminated fabrics are often used in the manufacture of PPE. When these items become contaminated with blood or other body substances, the manufacturer's instructions for decontamination and cleaning take into account the compatibility of the rubber backing with the chemical germicides or detergents used in the process. The directions for decontaminating these items should be followed as indicated; the item should be discarded when the backing develops surface cracks.

Dry cleaning, a cleaning process that utilizes organic solvents (e.g., perchloroethylene) for soil removal, is an alternative means of cleaning fabrics that might be damaged in conventional laundering and detergent washing. Several studies, however, have shown that dry cleaning alone is relatively ineffective in reducing the numbers of bacteria and viruses on contaminated linens;1289, 1290 microbial populations are significantly reduced only when dry-cleaned articles are heat pressed. Dry cleaning should therefore not be considered a routine option for health-care facility laundry and should be reserved for those circumstances in which fabrics can not be safely cleaned with water and detergent.1291

6. Surgical Gowns, Drapes, and Disposable Fabrics

An issue of recent concern involves the use of disposable (i.e., single use) versus reusable (i.e., multiple use) surgical attire and fabrics in health-care settings.1292 Regardless of the material used to manufacture gowns and drapes, these items must be resistant to liquid and microbial penetration.7, 1293– 1297 Surgical gowns and drapes must be registered with FDA to demonstrate their safety and effectiveness. Repellency and pore size of the fabric contribute to gown performance, but performance capability can be influenced by the item's design and construction.1298, 1299 Reinforced gowns (i.e., gowns with double-layered fabric) generally are more resistant to liquid strike-through.1300, 1301 Reinforced gowns may, however, be less comfortable. Guidelines for selection and use of barrier materials for surgical gowns and drapes have been published.1302 When selecting a barrier product, repellency level and type of barrier should be compatible for the exposure expected.967 However, data are limited regarding the association between gown or drape characteristics and risk for surgical site infections.7, 1303 Health-care facilities must ensure optimal protection of patients and health-care workers. Not all fabric items in health care lend themselves to single-use. Facilities exploring options for gowns and drapes should consider the expense of disposable items and the impact on the facility's waste-management costs once these items are discarded. Costs associated with the use of durable goods involve the fabric or textile items; staff expenses to collect, sort, clean, and package the laundry; and energy costs to operate the laundry if on-site or the costs to contract with an outside service.1304, 1305

7. Antimicrobial-Impregnated Articles and Consumer Items Bearing Antimicrobial Labeling

Manufacturers are increasingly incorporating antibacterial or antimicrobial chemicals into consumer and health-care items. Some consumer products bearing labels that indicate treatment with antimicrobial chemicals have included pens, cutting boards, toys, household cleaners, hand lotions, cat litter, soaps, cotton swabs, toothbrushes, and cosmetics. The "antibacterial" label on household cleaning products, in particular, gives consumers the impression that the products perform "better" than comparable products without this labeling, when in fact all household cleaners have antibacterial properties.

In the health-care setting, treated items may include children's pajamas, mattresses, and bed linens with label claims of antimicrobial properties. These claims require careful evaluation to determine whether they pertain to the use of antimicrobial chemicals as preservatives for the fabric or other components or whether they imply a health claim.1306, 1307 No evidence is available to suggest that use of these products will make consumers and patients healthier or prevent disease. No data support the use of these items as part of a sound infection-control strategy, and therefore, the additional expense of replacing a facility's bedding and sheets with these treated products is unwarranted.

EPA has reaffirmed its position that manufacturers who make public health claims for articles containing antimicrobial chemicals must provide evidence to support those claims as part of the registration process.1308 Current EPA regulations outlined in the Treated Articles Exemption of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) require manufacturers to register both the antimicrobial chemical used in or on the product and the finished product itself if a public health claim is maintained for the item. The exemption applies to the use of antimicrobial chemicals for the purpose of preserving the integrity of the product's raw material(s). The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is evaluating manufacturer advertising of products with antimicrobial claims.1309

8. Standard Mattresses, Pillows, and Air-Fluidized Beds

Standard mattresses and pillows can become contaminated with body substances during patient care if the integrity of the covers of these items is compromised. The practice of sticking needles into the mattress should be avoided. A mattress cover is generally a fitted, protective material, the purpose of which is to prevent the mattress from becoming contaminated with body fluids and substances. A linen sheet placed on the mattress is not considered a mattress cover. Patches for tears and holes in mattress covers do not provide an impermeable surface over the mattress. Mattress covers should be replaced when torn; the mattress should be replaced if it is visibly stained. Wet mattresses, in particular, can be a substantial environmental source of microorganisms. Infections and colonizations caused by Acinetobacter spp., MRSA, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa have been described, especially among burn patients.1310–1315 In these reports, the removal of wet mattresses was an effective infection-control measure. Efforts were made to ensure that pads and covers were cleaned and disinfected between patients using disinfectant products compatible with mattress-cover materials to ensure that these covers remained impermeable to fluids.1310–1314 Pillows and their covers should be easily cleanable, preferably in a hot water laundry cycle.1315 These should be laundered between patients or if contaminated with body substances.

Air-fluidized beds are used for the care of patients immobilized for extended periods of time because of therapy or injury (e.g., pain, decubitus ulcers, and burns).1316 These specialized beds consist of a base unit filled with microsphere beads fluidized by warm, dry air flowing upward from a diffuser located at the bottom of the unit. A porous, polyester filter sheet separates the patient from direct contact with the beads but allows body fluids to pass through to the beads. Moist beads aggregate into clumps which settle to the bottom where they are removed as part of routine bed maintenance.

Because the beads become contaminated with the patient's body substances, concerns have been raised about the potential for these beds to serve as an environmental source of pathogens. Certain pathogens (e.g., Enterococcus spp., Serratia marcescens, Staphylococcus aureus, and Streptococcus fecalis) have been recovered either from the microsphere beads or the polyester sheet after cleaning.1317, 1318 Reports of cross-contamination of patients, however, are few.1318 Nevertheless, routine maintenance and between-patient decontamination procedures can minimize potential risks to patients. Regular removal of bead clumps, coupled with the warm, dry air of the bed, can help to minimize bacterial growth in the unit.1319–1321

Beads are decontaminated between patients by high heat (113°F–194°F [45°C–90°C], depending on the manufacturer's specifications) for at least 1 hour; this procedure is particularly important for the inactivation of Enterococcus spp. which are relatively resistant to heat.1322, 1323 The polyester filter sheet requires regular changing and thorough cleaning and disinfection, especially between patients.1317, 1318, 1322, 1323

Microbial contamination of the air space in the immediate vicinity of a properly maintained air-fluidized bed is similar to that found in air around conventional bedding, despite the air flow out of the base unit and around the patient.1320, 1324, 1325 An operational air-fluidized bed can, however, interfere with proper pressure differentials, especially in negative-pressure rooms;1326 the effect varies with the location of the bed relative to the room's configuration and supply and exhaust vent locations. Use of an air-fluidized bed in a negative-pressure room requires consultation with a facility engineer to determine appropriate placement of the bed.