Repetitive, awkward motion; frequent bending; and poorly sited equipment can slow the work flow and lead to injury. In general terms of the amount of lost work time, back strain ranks a close second to the common cold for days missed.
With that in mind, many workplaces-especially on-premise laundries, such as those found in long-term care and assisted living facilities-are placing a renewed focus on the goal of ergonomics; i.e., fitting the job to the worker.
To help prevent physical injuries, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends training employees on proper lifting techniques, posting signs that illustrate those techniques, reducing the size and weight of items lifted, and installing mechanical aids when possible.
Equipment must be adjusted to the proper height to limit bending. Sometimes commercial laundry equipment is installed on concrete pads to raise the height of the machines for more efficient use. Most long-term care laundries are equipped with 60-lb washers, the bottom of the washer door opening should be at least 25" off the floor to enable 10-bushel wash carts (which are approximately 25" high) to match the machine opening (figure 1).
While it's important that the pad is neither too high nor too low, laundry managers also should make sure that the equipment isn't set too far back from the front edge of the pad. Otherwise, wash carts will be too far from machine fronts and laundry workers will have to bend and reach awkwardly when loading or unloading machines. A good rule of thumb is to have about 3" of space from the front edge of the pad to the front of the machine.
Ergonomics and the Laundry Process
OSHA has offered a number of recommendations to ease the strain on laundry personnel. For example, when removing laundry from deep machines, OSHA recommends using a long-handled rake or similar device to pull it from the rear of the machine closer to the opening. Loading and unloading large items such as sheets can be especially difficult, particularly if items become knotted during washing. OSHA suggests that when this happens, the employee should brace one hand and use the other to gently remove the knot.
A good way to avoid injuries and strains suffered from removing large wet items, as well as limit those frustrating knots, is to load sheets and larger pieces of laundry individually. When loading sheets, for example, a proven method is to grab the item by the corner, gather it accordion-style, and place it in the washer (figure 2). Although the process takes a little extra time during loading, significant time savings will be realized during unloading because clean sheets will not be tangled. Laundry workers also benefit, as they are saved from the awkward task of fighting the washer to remove multiple heavy, wet items-easily the most difficult job in the laundry. Related to easing the task of removing clean, wet linens from the washer is choosing the right equipment. Washer-extractors with high g-force ratings remove more water out of laundry items; thus, linens are less water soaked at the end of the cycle and easier for laundry staff to remove. When changing loads, workers should be instructed that during the turn from machine to cart, they should keep their nose over their toes, picking up their feet as they move. This method will keep workers from wrenching their knees.
Folding is another task in which repetition may lead to strains or injuries. Properly adjusted folding counters can limit the possibility of such issues arising. Folding surfaces should stand 30" inches off the floor. Stand-up, one-person folders are faster, more efficient, and easier on the user's back than employing two people to fold sheets.
Laundry Room Design
While less about ergonomics and more about efficiency, laundry room design can aid work flow and limit mishaps. U-shaped designs seem to work best, with separate rooms for soiled linens, washing, and drying. Soiled linens come in one door and clean items leave through the opposite-side door. Dedicated, color-coded carts for each area will ensure that laundry items are not mixed up and limit the risk of spreading infection.
In response to ergonomics and, ultimately, better efficiency, on-premise laundries in nursing homes and other healthcare environments are moving away from stationary storage of clean linens in favor of mobility. Mobile shelving is winning out over permanent shelving because folded clean linens are stacked just once versus stacking linens on shelves and then restacking them on carts when needed on the floors. Again, employees gain the ergonomic benefits of less bending and reaching, and carts may be wheeled to their destination.