Drawing up a contingency plan is what every 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 major incidents make news, such as a fire that destroys the production facilities of a laundry, or when acts of vandalism leave a company with no vehicles. Most have a happy ending.

Burnt out shells are rebuilt, new, more up-to-date equipment installed and production facilities improved. But what is often missing is the tremendous effort expended in attempting to provide a constant supply of clean linen, maintaining your customer base and keeping the business for the day the new plant is commissioned.

When evaluating tenders for NHS contracts, a favourite question is: “What would you do if your plant was to burn down”. It can be embarrassing to listen to a fellow manager try to bluff his or her way through. They may well have an arrangement with a local laundry; 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…”.

Instead of waiting for fate to strike, why not 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 vital person is away and you can’t find that all-important telephone number.

Private companies have an advantage over the NHS. Any company with more than one plant does have many advantages. Unless they are operating 24/7 they can direct shortfalls in production to their 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 – 5,000kgs/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 which does not allow for peak consumptions 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 them, or can you borrow one? All these questions are easier to answer without the additional pressure of customers, directors and staff all wanting answers.

On electricity supply, 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 actual emergency occurs.

Computer systems

One area often considered low -risk is computer systems. It is now accepted practice to create a backup copy at regular intervals of all-important information. But has anyone ever tested the retrieval system by attempting to use this archived information?

If the hard drive of your processor suffers meltdown tomorrow, have you 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 you do if you lost access to all your computer data? Do you have back-ups for customer details, addresses, pricing, delivery schedules and bar code 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?

When a tunnel washer was installed twenty years ago, there was always a back-up plan, just in case it 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 yourself what would be the impact on your 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?

On the subject of staff, 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 your plant capacity over 8 /12 or 24 hours, 5/7 days and compared it with your current throughput? If you had to reduce capacity, which work is of a lower importance, which customers can wait and who cannot?

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.

With healthcare work, 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 that one of the least of my problems would be the loss of a vehicle. I was wrong. First of all, to comply with HSG(95)18 vehicles need divisions if used to transport soiled and clean 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. In the case of a hospital, who holds your 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 do you have sufficient stock 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 days additional stock purchased will tie up approx £12,500 of capital and require 10 cubic metres 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 by the north east in formulating a contingency plan. Hopefully, it will never need to be implemented. But, should the day arrive that it is, then I hope everyone involved is as committed as Liz.

Ian Hargreaves is national treasurer of the Society of Hospital Linen Service and Laundry Managers