JAN. 14–FAIRVIEW, Ore.–Dirt, sweat, blood and vomit roll into Portland Hospital Service Corp.’s (PHSC) loading dock six days a week, but at the other end of the building, more than 63,000 pounds of clean, folded, mended laundry wheels out.
From nursing scrubs to baby blankets, from rag mops to packages for open-heart surgery, PHSC processes the linen for almost all Portland area hospitals, even in disasters such as power failures and ice storms.
“It’s a utility. We’re a critical service,” Deborah Lark, executive director, told “The Oregonian.” “They can’t operate without us. We can’t be down.”
That’s why she is planning a detailed 45-day transition next fall, when the 32-year-old laundry moves from cramped Fairview quarters to a custom-built home at the Riverside Parkway Corporate Center, an industrial park planned by the Portland Development Commission in the Airport Way Urban Renewal Area.
The new 68,200-square-foot building will accommodate new equipment to replace older machinery. It will vent the sweltering heat generated by automatic ironing machines and giant dryers. It will safely contain the desk-sized drums of chemicals that kill microbes and neutralize spilled chemotherapy drugs. It will compress the workload into one shift rather than two.
The laundry was founded 32 years ago as a joint venture that now includes the Providence, Legacy and Kaiser health systems. The groups ¿normally fierce competitors — united to fight the skyrocketing costs of laundry service. But growing need and new ventures have taxed the laundry’s capacity.
In 1997, the laundry started a surgical package service, preparing packaged groups of all the ultra-clean, high-quality linen that would be needed in a specialized procedure.
“A lot of hospitals use disposable items. It’s much more cost-effective to use linens,” Lark said.
A trip through its 39,000-square-foot plant near the Multnomah Greyhound Park shows how cramped it can be. Its small fleet of trucks picks up bags of dirty laundry and delivers fresh laundry– twice a day for a large hospital like Providence St. Vincent, three times a week for a small hospital like Legacy Mt. Hood.
At the soiled laundry dock, bags are piled into slings and hoisted to aI mezzanine, where gloved and goggled sorters break them open.
Linen for surgical packs heads to a cleanroom, where workers with hairnets and lint brushes stand above two light tables, scouting for fuzz or pinprick holes as they wrap the linen in small bundles. The meticulous folds were developed during field trips to operating rooms to study medical techniques, Lark said.
Each bundle includes a small white tag that changes colors during sterilization, proving it is safe for surgery.
Some jobs prove a test; “You’ve got to have the stomach” to work in the sorting room, Lark said.
The sheets supply a strong stench of urine and other waste, along with a string of unpredictable hazards such as forgotten needles. Special red biohazard bags — for items soaked with blood or used by patients with diseases such as scabies are dumped directly into intense cleaning baths.
The sheets also supply a lost-and-found of patients’ personal lives — stuffed animals, rosaries, wallets, dentures, glasses, mobile phones, credit cards, pagers and wedding bands. Those that don’t come out in the sorting room often don’t survive the industrial-strength washers and driers.
Truck-sized continuous washers move the linen in 14 150-pound batches. A hydraulic ram wrings them with 18,000 pounds of pressure. The dryers take 300-pound loads.
Lint fills the air. Heat rises in ripples from the rollers of automated irons. The laundry swelters in the summer, Lark said. So much lint fills the air that workers blow the irons clean every day.
Feeders quickly maneuver sheets or pillowcases onto the first set of iron rollers. Catchers grab the ironed laundry and stack it on nearby carts. The feeders and catchers rotate jobs each hour to avoid repetitive motion injuries.
Workers pull gowns sticky with surgical tape residue and send them for spot cleaning. They look for holes and tears that need mending. If the item can’t be saved, PHSC sends it to medical charities working abroad or sells it for rags; replacing old linen costs about $1.8 million each year.