The science of washing personal protective equipment
To keep protecting its wearers, personal protective equipment requires professional washing and regular re-impregnation. For Stories of INTERSCHUTZ we spoke with Dr. Jochen Kuhl and Axel Meyer, the co-CEOs of specialist PPE laundry firm Meyer und Kuhl Spezialwäschen GmbH, about hygiene amid the COVID-19 crisis, laundries as essential services, asbestos contamination, and laundry bags that seal contaminants in.28 Apr. 2020
You’re in the business of cleaning personal protective equipment. So, do fire brigades, emergency and rescue services and police departments from all over Germany and Austria actually bundle up their PPE laundry in bags and send it all the way to you for cleaning?
Dr. Jochen Kuhl: In a word, yes. Our customers send us their personal protective garments either immediately after use or whenever they need care and repair. I should say that cleaning is only part of what we do. We provide a full range of personal protective garment maintenance services.
So apart from cleaning, we chemically impregnate, repair and service personal protective equipment. We recently started offering PPE decontamination services as well. The decontamination process we use is a world first that we recently developed ourselves.
But surely sending PPE all that distance for cleaning is a really slow and unwieldy process for customers?
Axel Meyer: Not at all. We work closely with our logistics partners to ensure that our customers’ vital personal protective garments are collected and returned within a very short timeframe, whether they’re in big cities or far-flung regions. We can process orders in 48 hours or less, meaning the entire turnaround time from PPE pick-up to return is less than a week. For many customers, that’s faster than washing their gear themselves or using their local laundry. And it’s certainly a lot more professional.
How big a part of your business is personal protective equipment?
Kuhl: We are a specialist laundry service. We only clean functional textiles – textiles that are comprised of multiple technical layers and therefore require highly specialized and sophisticated washing and chemical impregnation processes. So, we’re different to normal laundry services, which typically do only very little technical and PPE work.
Personal protective equipment is our biggest business segment and it’s growing steadily. Furthermore, Axel Meyer is himself a firefighter. We know and understand fire-service logistical structures and believe we can make a difference as a reliable partner.
How often should PPE be washed? Does it always have to be done professionally, or can it be washed at home from time to time?
Meyer: PPE should be washed only as often as necessary – and it’s generally only necessary after soiling, sweat impregnation or contamination. Every time you wash PPE, you shorten its service life. PPE should definitely not be washed at home because only a professional laundry service can optimally remove the soiling or contamination without damaging the garment. Also, the contaminants on the garments are potentially hazardous – not something you want in the home.
Are your cleaning processes measurably less damaging than the average domestic washing machine?
Kuhl: Yes. A comparison done by a PPE manufacturer showed that PPA washed 75 times using our processes had less wear and tear than the same PPE washed ten times in a standard domestic washing machine. Another commercial laundry service produced the same level of wear and tear after only about 30 washes. So with our process, PPE easily lasts twice as long, which represents a significant reduction in PPE total lifecycle costs.
What is it, exactly, that makes your process so much better? What’s the secret?
Meyer: We use washing processes that have been developed specifically to care for personal protective garments by cleaning them only to the extent required. The types and quantities of detergents and washing aids used are calibrated exactly to the weight and textile composition of the garment and the type and degree of soiling involved. It’s pretty much a science, and it takes years of experience.
Our washing process also involves close expert inspection for signs of damage that may render the protective garment no longer suitable or safe for use. None of this can be done in the home.
How are you doing at the moment? What effect is the COVID-19 situation having on your business?
Kuhl: We have responded by stepping up our already stringent hygiene measures. Being providers of specialized PPE laundry services, we are accustomed to dealing with the risk of virus infection. And the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is of course not the only such risk that we must contend with. We encounter a whole range of highly infections viruses, fungal spores and bacteria. SARS-CoV-2 is highly infections, and so our main response has been to change our work processes.
For example, we no longer have any direct contact with people from outside our organization. Our employees wear personal protective equipment whenever handling potentially contaminated garments – which these days means practically everything. In addition, they maintain a two-meter distance from each other at all times. We’re also working in strictly segregated shifts so that we can remain operational even if one of our people contracts the disease.
Has the crisis increased your order volumes?
Kuhl: Our order volumes for normal functional textiles for outdoor use are significantly down at the moment. But in our PPE business, orders have increased. Demand for our emergency-services hygiene solutions is especially strong. Our current top seller is our PPE laundry bags that emergency services use to safely send us their contaminated textiles.
What specific measures are required for dealing with fire and rescue protective clothing after it has come into contact with someone infected with COVID-19?
Meyer: What’s needed is strict hygiene. I can’t emphasize that enough: hygiene. Now, more than ever, frontline emergency personnel need to observe strict incident-site hygiene protocols. Potentially contaminated textile items must be immediately packed in special water-soluble sacks or dedicated laundry bags for safe transport to the laundry service.
This applies especially to wet and damp garments, as they are particularly at risk of being vectors for the virus. The emergency personnel affected should also undertake appropriate personal decontamination measures. Here at Meyer und Kuhl, we follow the recommendations of the Robert Koch disease control institute, which specify that textiles and laundry items should undergo a tested and approved laundry disinfection process.
The various states that make up our country have yet to standardize their stance on whether laundries are essential services and should thus be permitted to remain operational during COVID-19 lockdowns. What’s your view on that? Are you running into difficulties in some states?
Kuhl: We definitely need consistency on this nationwide if our country is to be able to reliably supply its frontline emergency personnel with the protective gear they need over the long term. Cleaning personal protective clothing is fundamental to enabling emergency first-responders to do their job. If they don’t have clean PPE, they can’t do their job, it’s that simple. It would be an unmitigated disaster if emergency personnel were to contract COVID-19 in large numbers – or worse still, contribute to its spread – for lack of the required protective equipment.
Obviously, no right-thinking person among our country’s leadership would want that to happen, but why leave it to chance? It would be best to have it codified clearly and unambiguously at national level, so that everyone understands we are providing an essential service. We’re not experiencing any difficulties at the moment, but that could quickly change as the virus continues to spread.
It’s easy to imagine how you wash textile items – in washing machines. But what about helmets, belts and footwear? How do you wash those?
Meyer: We use specially adapted industrial washing machines for helmets and footwear. They work much like our textile machines, although they look nothing like them.
The name Meyer und Kuhl is commonly associated with a process for cleaning asbestos-contaminated PPE that you developed in partnership with the testing lab Prüflabor CRB Analyse Service GmbH. Can you tell us a little about this process?
Meyer: Here in Germany, about 95 percent of all buildings built between 1960 and 1990 contain asbestos. For firefighters, that poses an ever-present and very real risk of asbestos contamination. We have developed an effective solution for this problem because we believe it is a problem, despite it being all too often downplayed and ignored.
At the moment, affected firefighters have to go to great lengths to have their asbestosis officially recognized as an occupational disease, so in many cases they simply fail. On that note, I’d like to acknowledge the wonderful people at Initiative Feuerkrebs.de and their work on recognition and prevention of occupational cancers in the fire service.
As it happens, we’ve already written about them in our Stories of INTERSCHUTZ...
Meyer: Our process treats firefighter PPE that has become contaminated by asbestos while attending fires. It eliminates 99.9 percent of Germany’s two most commonly encountered types of asbestos. The traces that remain on the gear are negligible and pose no risk to health. We now also offer a test kit that firefighters can use on the job. Fire departments simply send the used test strips to us along with their laundry.
The strips are then lab-tested so that we know for sure whether contamination is present and can act accordingly. Our recommendation to firefighters is that they should err on the side of caution and use the test kits even at the mere suspicion of contamination.
What other hazardous substances can only be fully removed using special washing technologies?
Kuhl: We are currently putting a lot of resources into the residue-free removal of carcinogenic fibers other than asbestos. That includes all inhalable fibers, such as carbon fibers and synthetic mineral fibers like glass and mineral wool, although certain other, older, types of wool fiber can also cause cancer. We are working closely with other laboratories, researchers and manufacturers on methods capable of testing for residue-free removal of hazardous substances. We are confident that we will be able to publish further results before the end of the year.
Washing is only one part of contamination control. Proper transportation of contaminated equipment is just as important. What innovative solutions do you offer for that?
Kuhl: We offer special Mayer und Kuhl PPE laundry bags that firefighters can take with them and use to safely pack and seal contaminated workwear immediately after use. The sealed bags are then placed in an outer packaging, such as a cardboard carton, and transported to our laundry facility.
How do you manage the contaminated gear once it’s at your laundry facility? How do you protect your employees?
Kuhl: Each sealed PPE laundry bag is loaded directly into our industrial washing machine. Nobody actually touches the contaminated PPE. The bag automatically opens during the wash cycle so that everything gets cleaned and decontaminated. This protects our employees and eliminates unnecessary handling and labor.
What’s your view of the PPE cleaning situation here in Germany? Do people have a good enough understanding of best practice? Is that best practice actually being followed?
Meyer: The need for specialist cleaning of personal protective equipment is currently a widely discussed topic, but it hasn’t yet filtered down to all frontline personnel and managers in the fire service. Some departments think they can cut costs here and have their gear cleaned by non-specialists. Washing PPE in the home using domestic machines is out of the question, obviously.
But the real problem, in our view, is that many firefighting equipment centers and laundries that only sporadically wash PPE are out of their depth. Specialist laundry services such as us are able to clean and decontaminate PPE to the required standard without causing undue wear. We have developed over 50 separate washing programs for our industrial washing machines, so we can precisely tailor our cleaning to the type and degree of soiling, contamination, infection and so forth.
What are your key messages for INTERSCHUTZ?
Kuhl: We will be showcasing all of our solutions for the professional care and cleaning of personal protective equipment. Our message is that we clean all elements of PPE, including helmets, flameproof hoods, jackets, gloves, trousers and boots. We’ll be joined at our stand by CRB Analyse Service GmbH, Germany’s leading asbestos analysis laboratory. Together, we will focus on PPE asbestos decontamination, other cleaning methods and our testing methods.
We will also be joining with our manufacturing partners – including DuPont, S-Gard, Rosenbauer, Viking and Gore-Tex – to showcase their latest products, including textile care characteristics. In partnership with DuPont, for example, we will be presenting a new fire-jacket fabric that has undergone extensive wash testing. The presentation will include comparisons with normal domestic washing.
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