Safety is not very sexy or exciting, but it must be addressed systematically if everyday risks to staff, customers and neighbours are to be avoided. Accidents happen and it pays to be prepared, not only to minimise the painful risks of these but also to avoid the disruption and quite severe legal penalties which result.
The most profitable laundries tend to be those which run like clockwork, with firm management and a trained workforce who know how to operate correctly and enjoy the discipline of doing it right.
Safe working practices fit in well with this and contribute significantly to a happy and productive workplace. Major advances in laundry chemistry and quality management have made it possible to reduce to a very low level the risk of laundry fires but these are still waiting to be implemented in many laundries (despite the low cost and quality benefits).
Let’s take a look at some of the essentials in each area.
Soiled textiles involving food industry workwear or healthcare often involves unpleasant odours from the bacteria which they carry. It can pay to minimise the effect of these by arranging ventilation so that the airflow takes any odours away from the sorters and out of the premises.
Sorters should be provided with suitable gloves to protect them from unpleasant soiling and they should be made aware of the risk of sharps in pockets and the fire danger from boxes of matches or lighters left in pockets. The main fire risk from these comes when the garment is in the dryer.
2. Loading and Unloading
The human body is remarkably versatile, but risks of progressive back and joint problems can be greatly reduced by positioning barrows correctly, adjacent to the machine being loaded or unloaded, so as to minimise awkward stretching and twisting.
It often pays to operate several smaller machines rather than a few very large ones, because these give more flexibility and less need for wasteful underloading. Although larger machines can be more economical on water, energy and chemicals, the latest designs for small machines (particularly the one by Hydrofinity) address this head-on, with much lower consumption demands than its larger competitors.
3. Chemical Handling
Laundry chemicals are designed with safety in mind, but the smartest operators insist on automatic dosing pumps, which do away with manually measured additions and associated risks of spillage. The residual risks of drum handling are then easily managed, with inexpensive barrel trolleys and dedicated chemical storage areas.
Although different countries vary as to regulation, most now have rules that govern the handling and use of chemicals that can be hazardous to health. These generally rely on identification by the user of the hazards that might occur, the consequences if a hazard does occur, the risk of this happening and the controls the user has in place to control the risk to a satisfactorily low level. Obviously, where the potential hazard could involve a fatality or loss of eyesight, the controls must be much more rigorous than those for, say, slipping on a wet floor.
Storage of laundry chemicals could involve some unusual hazards. For example, standard precautions will generally include:
- Keeping the caps on a keg until it is required for use
- Standing it upright with the hazard warning label clearly visible
- Not stacking more than one (occasionally two) high
However, some laundry chemicals will react dangerously if mixed, so it is unwise, for example, to keep chlorine bleach alongside laundry sour, because mixing in an accident would produce toxic chlorine gas.
4. Electrical Safety
Most laundry equipment is designed to be inherently safe, but the rules are still tightened slightly every few years to lower even further the residual risks of fire and electrocution.
The UK Institution of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) publishes a wiring guide which is updated regularly (qualified electricians are currently working to its 17th Edition) and has been widely adopted. Shrewd launderers only entrust laundry electrics to a qualified electrician and specify clearly on the purchase order that all wiring is to comply with IEEE rules, current edition.
The European Union requires laundering equipment to be CE marked as evidence that it has been manufactured to comply with EU safety rules. These are backed up by the European standards body, which has published a suite of European Norms (many of which are specific to particular types of laundry equipment). All the purchaser needs to do is to specify that all equipment is CE marked to be assured of its safety and fitness for purpose.
Even so, because a laundry involves a mix of high voltage electricity with plenty of water, staff training is vital. Operators should be taught to watch for the tingling sensation when touching a machine or its controls because this is often the first indication of a breakdown in earthing (and much-increased risk of electrocution). Odours of burning rubber need to be reported swiftly and dealt with by a competent person (usually the supervisor or the laundry engineer). Otherwise, the next report could describe smoke and flames which call for even more urgent attention!
5. Fire Safety
Fires which break out during working hours usually occur in the tumble dryer or garment tunnel finisher. One laundry, which carried out a trial to determine whether a box of matches left in the pocket of a garment could actually cause a fire in the tunnel finisher, demonstrated that it certainly could! What surprised them was that despite trained staff standing at the entry and exit, with every available fire extinguisher, they only just managed to get the fire out!
The main cause of laundry fires, both during and outside working hours, is believed (with strong evidence) to be spontaneous combustion. If there are oils, greases or fats that survive the wash, then under certain conditions they will trigger automatic ignition. The warm residual contamination reacts with the oxygen in the air and this reaction gives off heat, making the further reaction occur even faster. Ignition can occur if this happens. The risk is greatest towards the end of the drying cycle, when the textile is very hot and bone dry, which is when ignition is most likely to occur. The risk is even higher if the textiles are routinely over-dried.
If combustion occurs in the tumble dryer, then the best procedure is to keep the door closed and the fire will sometimes self-extinguish when the oxygen in the dryer is exhausted. If it occurs in the tunnel finisher, then staff should be trained to call the fire service immediately and evacuate the premises. Only staff members who have previously been trained to deal with a tunnel fire (in conjunction with the local fire service) should be allowed to stay and do so – this is not a job for enthusiastic amateurs. Automatic quench systems are available with most tunnel designs (and with some tumble dryer types) and should always be purchased where possible.
Possibly the most dangerous event in laundering is spontaneous combustion occurring during the night in unattended premises. When this happens, the consequence is usually total loss, with a typical cost for a medium-sized laundry of over £5m. The fire often starts in the finished goods area with a warm pile of poorly washed kitchen cloths or spa towels, for example. The chemical reaction between the warm residual oils and atmospheric oxygen starts very slowly (probably at around 50C). It gradually gathers pace over three of four hours, until the auto-ignition temperature is reached when flaming textiles are then hurled explosively in every direction!
The risk of fires of this type ever occurring can be minimised simply by ensuring that oils, greases and fats are entirely removed from the textiles in the wash. The crude (and expensive) way of doing this is simply to increase the detergent dosage appreciably, but this is not always effective (depending on the types of contamination). A better method is to use a small dose of an appropriate emulsifier in the pre-wash, which is then carried forward to the main wash, targeting the oily contamination in both stages. A broad range emulsifier works best, to deal with both food fats and spa oils, for example, but setting the dosage can be difficult and there is a cost involved.
6. Safety Training
A court of law might struggle to comprehend laundry technology following a serious accident and might well fall back on the absence of a risk assessment, poor recording of safety training and failure to conduct refresher sessions on a regular basis. The penalties for these could be much the same as for negligence and they are much easier to prove. Every laundry should establish a proper set of risk assessments, in which hazard, consequence, risk of occurrence and controls in use are detailed. This can be prepared by the owner or manager or by an external specialist.
The controls in the risk assessment then form the basis of the organisation’s training plan. These should be built into a simple, structured training session which can be given to every operative (probably in small groups, so as not to disrupt production unnecessarily). If every operative is given a set of notes at the end of the training session (which could be copies of the risk assessment relevant to them) and signs off that they have received the training and will follow the requirements, then the organisation has probably done as much as is possible, by training alone, to minimise safety hazards and the risk of these being realised.
Safety management is never going to be as exciting as running a successful business, but it is a vital ingredient in that success. If it is tackled systematically using the guidance given here, then it need not be a chore.