It is sometimes surprising to note how many employees are taking workwear home to wash in their own domestic machine, even when the employer has an effective commercial arrangement for contract laundering or a full textile rental service.

Because of the ineffectiveness of the domestic washer for much contaminated workwear, demand from food retailers, (including servers and chefs) and in the healthcare sector, HACCP and EN14065 have widely been adopted by the commercial laundry sector. Food manufacturing and food processing workwear is also subject to strict quality criteria for residual allergens, implemented by most large rental customers, and the best of these include residual micro-organisms as well. These have been developed by the sector itself, in line with legislation and best practice, which might explain why they have been adopted so quickly and effectively at the high-volume end of the market.

Customer requirements, for processes that achieve both disinfection and allergen removal, can now be certified relatively inexpensively. Equally importantly, chemical suppliers have now developed detergents and processes which achieve superior results at low temperature, to meet carbon footprint requirements.

The main area, where opportunities still remain, lies in restaurant kitchens, particularly small, isolated ones, where professional chefs often complain about the cleanliness of their whites. More surprising is the acceptance of kitchen staff kitchen to use cloths which are still very grubby, and which often display objectionable odours, which often lead to spontaneous combustion! There are now processes available which will get these clean and stain-free, but the take-up is not universal!

Let’s take a look at the options now available.

Thermal versus chemical disinfection

Implied thermal disinfection, practised by many healthcare services for years, is still widely adopted, mainly because it is readily validated. It is starting to be supported been replaced by chemical disinfection, either in the wash (e.g. using ozone) or in the rinse (e.g. using chemicals) One common process for implied thermal disinfection assumed that if the temperature of the hot wash was held at 71C for 3 minutes plus mixing time, then adequate disinfection would be achieved. It failed if the machine was overloaded (so that the temperature measured in the sump never got to the centre of the load), or if the wash dip was too low, or if the temperature indication was out of calibration and so on. It was a ‘feed-forward’ method of control, with no ‘feedback’ mechanism to actually check the widely believed assumption that it was working! When checks were made on this assumption (using dip-slides, data loggers or Des Controllers), it was often found to be false!

Chemical disinfection relies on the chemical attacking the bacteria cells and breaking into the cell wall. Many of these disinfection processes are ‘thermochemical’, that is they rely on slightly elevated temperatures in the hot wash which, when combined with the wash chemistry, achieve a reduction of 5log10 in the count of micro-organisms, to meet the requirement of many healthcare organisations. Other methods rely on chemical disinfection alone, often in the final rinse. This can be enhanced by the use of a substantive disinfectant, that is one which locks onto the textile to provide some lasting protection in ultimate use. This can be particularly effective in controlling objectionable odours in the clean garment locker which can be a frequent problem (especially if the wash process is not that good and is leaving nutrients to support bug growth on the textile).

One interesting set of processes emerged during the Covid pandemic, involving widespread demand almost overnight for a process which could be guaranteed to destroy the Covid virus. Unlike bacteria, the fact that Covid was a virus made it very difficult to deal with by high temperature alone, many launderers increased wash temperature to 80°C. However, because it was enclosed by a fatty envelope, it was very susceptible to emulsification at medium temperatures. This was found to be reliably achievable ‘using the correct dose of a good detergent at 60°C! This remarkably imprecise specification was actually found to be generally adequate in the very short term and provided the basis of initial recommendations (for home washing) to ambulance staff in some regions, for example. Development of commercial processes followed rapidly and with the correct chemical additions, processes successful down to 40C (and even lower) were issued.

Energy costs and the accompanying large carbon footprint have accelerated the now-inevitable decline in implied thermal disinfection. In its place, there has been a large rise in the number and types of chemical disinfectants available. If you are laundering textiles for the hospitality market, you should be in discussion with your chemicals supplier regarding the products available to you, so that you can select the most suitable for your operation. The market leaders in the hotel and restaurant sector will be taking action ahead of any legal requirement and you need to be in the forefront with them.

Domestic versus commercial disinfection

Most domestic washing machine designs are good at providing clean, stain- free and odour-free textiles, but they are certainly not designed with the precision needed for the guaranteed removal or destruction of the wide range of pathogens which have been identified as harmful to mankind. The makers do not put any great emphasis on the accuracy of the very limited time-temperature combinations they offer!

This means that the policy prevalent in a great many healthcare, hotel and restaurant operations should not be allowed to continue, if workwear washed domestically could come into contact and infect or otherwise damage members of the public. This applies not only to bacteria and viruses; tiny amounts of allergens have been shown to have tragic effects on certain vulnerable people. We are now in an age when common sense must prevail and controlled commercial decontamination has become essential for all critical workwear.

Providing customer assurance of disinfection

It is now widely recognised that the replacement of implied thermal disinfection by chemical and thermochemical methods calls for checks on the effectiveness of the decontamination actually achieved. European organisations led the way with a surprisingly simple concept, published in the European Norm EN14065:2016. This does not attempt to set rigid standards or methods for disinfection but suggests a suite of simple techniques for assuring a customer that their disinfection requirements are met. The launderer is left free to decide on the process chosen for disinfection; the aim is to enable them to adopt an easily installed system to assure the customer that everything produced is adequately disinfected.

Most checks can be made in-house by the launderer at a frequency agreed with the customer. With brief training and inexpensive equipment, the checks can be quick enough and cheap enough to be carried out at an appropriate frequency. Use of an external certified laboratory can then be limited to annually validating finished goods hygiene, cleanliness of surfaces, hands, packaging and wash process log reduction.

A certified EN14065 system can be used as a powerful marketing tool because it commands widespread respect and is limited to those launderers who have taken the trouble to get assured disinfection right. Only a few launderers are as yet using this for hospitality textiles, so it is an opportunity to steal a march on the competition.

Allergen removal

The food processing sector has quickly adopted methods of assurance for adequate removal of allergens, which are very similar to the principles of EN14065 for healthcare textiles. They rely on regular checks on the power of the process used, based on EMPA test pieces. These are typically run quarterly and are backed up with an annual check on the actual low level achieved on the textile surface, of key ‘marker’ allergens, using an appropriately certified laboratory.

How to clean chefs’ whites

Some laundries still struggle to get chefs’ wear clean and stain-free. This requires a process and detergent system with the following features: ­

  • Good emulsification power to ensure the removal of fatty proteins, especially from polyester fibres (which are oleophilic and cling to fat and oils). ­
  • Intelligent oxidation of vegetable dye stains. ­
  • Low temperature activation, so that it works at 40C to 50C, which also permits effective enzyme action. ­
  • Ability to enhance optical brightness. ­
  • Very good suspension power to counter long-term greying from redeposition. ­
  • Ability to accept starch if required. Of course, the best launderers will also be able to remove iron marking from old blood and rusty drips, and aluminium marking from kitchen vessel and surfaces, but that demands separate recovery processes. These will not come out in the wash, so there is no point in putting them in the rewash!

Effective decontamination of healthcare, food processing and restaurant workwear, and the certified assurance that should go with this, is a developing market, which offers big opportunities for laundries able to get this right.

It is made even more attractive by the emergence of effective , low temperature processes from all leading detergent suppliers. ­