Drawing up a contingency plan is a task that every laundry manager should put in his or her diary for that “quiet time” when everything else is going to plan. Productivity is up, complaints are down, the plant is scrupulously clean and all staff are trained up to level 4 NVQ. The next job is to draw up a contingency plan.

The big incidents, such as a fire that destroys the production facilities of a laundry, or vandalism that leaves a company without vehicles.

Eventually the damage gets put right. Burnt out shells are rebuilt, new, more up-to-date equipment installed and production facilities improved. But in the meantime a tremendous effort will be needed to supply the clean linen needed, maintaining the laundry’s customer base and keeping the business for the day the new plant is commissioned.

When evaluating tenders for contracts, a favourite question is: “What would you do if your plant was to burn down”. It can be embarrassing to listen to a manager try to bluff his or her way through. In theory they may have an arrangement with a local laundry. In practice,ask for help on a Thursday and the local laundry may be able to provide help Friday or Saturday, but ask for help on the Tuesday after a bank holiday and the request is likely to be met with silence, perhaps followed by “I’d like to help, but…”.

Managers should spend a few hours thinking along the lines of “what if”? Plan ahead for the smaller incidents. When linked together, these will form the basis of the overall plan for a major incident.

Some planning may appear trivial. Work to ensure that the role of any person that is vital to the success of your business is replicated. A great deal of information on day-to-day problems and solutions is stored in our heads. We only ever realise how much, when that person is away and that all-important telephone number can’t be found.

Any company with more than one plant has many advantages. Unless they are operating 24/7 it can direct shortfalls in production to an under-used plant.

Not so in the NHS. Whilst collectively they have more plants than any of the large groups, the way in which the NHS operates means that each plant is effectively an island. With no captain to steer and navigate between the islands, each is left to fend for themselves.

A “what if” plan should include steam, an essential commodity for most laundries. An NHS plant is often supplied from a central boiler house serving a large hospital.

Usually there will be more than one boiler; therefore, the worry of a total steam loss is reduced considerably. Many Trusts have access to regionally-held mobile steam generators which can be wheeled on site, plugged in and be providing steam within hours. But was the laundry considered when this contingency was thought of?

A laundry processing 100,000 items a week will require a steam supply of 4,000 – 5,000kg/hour. Is this available after heating, sterile services and catering for a 1,000 bed hospital have all taken their share? It is more likely that an average hourly demand has been used when planning and this does not allow for peak consumption periods such as lunch times on a cold winter day.

As the plant manager, do you know what your peak demand for steam is when compared to the output available?

Take compressed air as another example. What happens if a compressor breaks down? Is there is more than one compressor? Can peak demands be met? If not, which equipment can be closed down, with minimum effect on the service? How long would it take to obtain a replacement? Who is the local agent for hiring compressors? Can you borrow one from another laundry? Managers will find these problems easier to solve without the additional pressure of customers, directors and staff all wanting answers.

In the case of power failure, is there an emergency backup generator? If the laundry is connected to such a supply, can the generator meet all the demands, especially those of washer-extractors due to their large power factor levels? Again, it is far easier to calculate and identify which machines can be operated before an emergency occurs.

Computer systems

A laundry or textile rental business may regard its computer systems as low risk. It is now accepted practice to create a backup copy of all-important information at regular intervals. But has the retrieval system been tested by attempting to use this archived information?

If the hard drive of your processor suffers meltdown tomorrow, are there the facilities to access the backed up data? Given that systems using Unix, Solaris or Windows are not interchangeable, and the wide variety of hardware and peripherals such as tape and disk drives, what should be a simple procedure could prove quite complex.

What would the laundry do if it lost access to all its computer data? Do you have back-ups for customer details, addresses, pricing, delivery schedules and barcode systems where it is not practical to enter the information manually?

Most batch tunnel washers rely on receiving a signal from a computerised feeding system, be it either a monorail or conveyor. Unless the tunnel washer receives this signal then the machine goes into idle mode. Can the washer be operated without this essential item of equipment? What about drying times, press pressures, loading and unloading sequences for tumblers? Would your staff be sufficiently trained to operate manual controls?

In the early days of tunnel washers, laundries always had a back-up plan just in case the machine broke down. Usually this was to divert work through a bank of washer extractors. As reliability improved, so spare washer-extractors were no longer felt necessary. But ask what would be the impact on business if you lost your tunnel, press or shuttle conveyor? If you have washer-extractors as a back-up, have you sufficient trained staff to operate them?

Most plants have high numbers of female staff who, whilst being very loyal employees, do have other commitments. Many have husbands and children and are therefore unable to reschedule their working hours at short notice. Many plants rely on the use of agency workers, but to rely on high numbers of untrained staff can not only be unproductive but may be extremely risky considering the cost if accidents occur.

When was the last time you calculated the plant capacity over 8/12 or 24 hours, 5/7 days and compared it with the current throughput? If capacity has to be reduced, how will be the work priorities be arranged? Which work is of a lower importance, which customers can wait and which must be dealt with urgently?

Contracting out to another plant always sounds like an easy option. Finding someone with spare capacity that can be activated within hours is more difficult.

It healthcare work has to be contracted out, prior vetting needs to be undertaken to ensure that the necessary hygiene standards are in place. Staff must have the required inoculations and HSG(95)18 conditions must be adhered to.

Using an alternative facility does assume that there are sufficient vehicles and trained drivers.

When I last worked for an NHS Trust I thought loss of a vehicle would be the least of my problems. I was wrong. First of all, to comply with HSG(95)18 vehicles need divisions if used to transport soiled and clean linen at the same time, and floor surfaces need to be of an impervious material.

To hire a vehicle usually requires the hirer to have sight of a certificate of insurance. Who holds the certificate of insurance, and how long would it take for you to obtain a copy?

Linen stocks

Provided there is an abundant supply of clean linen, customers may be unaffected by minor breakdowns at the laundry. But are there sufficient stocks to cope in a real emergency? Do you know what your minimum requirements are, in terms of number of days’ stock in circulation?

A linen supply of 25,000 sheets/week requires 5,000 to be processed daily. Every day’s additional stock purchased will tie up approx £12,500 of capital and require 10m3 of storage. In the event of a major incident, additional stocks of pre-washed and thermally disinfected linen will need to be obtained quickly.

The days of regional stores holding vast amounts of bed-linen have gone. Instead most purchases are from overseas and purchased on a just-in-time basis.

Minimum linen quantities need maintaining. This means constant additions of stock to compensate for losses in the system caused through theft, misappropriation, misuse and so on.

Liz Graham, head of linen services at County Durham and Darlington memorial Hospital, and north east regional chairman of the SHLSLM presented an excellent paper at the SHLSLM conference in April this year on the steps taken in her Trust in formulating a contingency plan. Hopefully, it will never need to be implemented. But, everyone needs this kind of commitment.