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Concerns over infection risk as Mater tells staff: 'Wash your own scrubs'

Staff at the emergency department in the Mater Hospital have been told to buy and wash their own uniforms – a system which could pose risks of cross-contamination.

Staff in the emergency department at the Mater hospital must now provide and wash their own hospital uniforms - something staff say could pose an infection risk.
Staff in the emergency department at the Mater hospital must now provide and wash their own hospital uniforms - something staff say could pose an infection risk.
Image: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

MEDICAL STAFF in the emergency department at the Mater hospital have been told to buy and clean their own ‘scrubs’ as part of hospital spending cutbacks – a move some staff fear poses a major infection risk.

Staff were previously supplied with the standard blue and green uniforms, worn over their own everyday clothing, and had these washed by the hospital – but staff now have to take care of this themselves.

Aside from the expense of buying their own uniforms – which are specially embroidered with the hospital logo, and therefore cost more than a standard set of scrubs – staff have also raised concerns about possible infection hazards under the new regime.

Medical staff have voiced fears that domestic washing machines would not be suitable for removing any infection risk from a contaminated hospital uniform. TheJournal.ie understands, however, that staff have been advised not to speak to the media about the arrangements.

One source said it was “farcical” to think that medical staff could be treating someone carrying a highly infectious disease, only to have their hospital uniform “brought home to wash with our family machine”.

In a statement to TheJournal.ie the Mater said the initiative “was introduced in areas where uniforms were traditionally worn, for example emergency department, dialysis, oncology and haematology day wards.”

This had been done “in consultation and agreement with relevant staff members”, it said, adding that the initiative was the hospital’s own and not a HSE instruction. The hospital insisted, however, that there was “no infection control issue” around the new regime.

Seven-stage wash

This conflicted with advice from Professor Ronnie Russell, a microbiologist at Trinity College Dublin, who said the best practice in hospitals was to run a seven-stage wash including peracetic acid on clinical textiles, including bedsheets and pillowcases.

“The coats and the personal protective equipment [...] used by the staff during nursing obviously become contaminated and they were vehicles of transmission of disease, just as hands are,” Russell said.

“Really the odds of actually doing a decent job in a domestic washing machine are quite low,” he said.

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Russell said there were scientific publications which showed that the likes of MRSA, the so-called hospital ‘superbug’, could easily survive a domestic wash.

There was also the possibility that clothing carrying an infection, while not being removed of that infection, could also cross-contaminate other garments in that wash.

Even if the wash was on a high temperature, killing any bacteria, Russell said there was a possibility of endotoxin, when dead bacteria fall into an open wound and cause irritation.

In general, Russell said best practice was for hospitals to provide appropriate changing facilities for staff, and lockers with two or three fresh uniforms for staff to use as needed.

Because some hospitals did not have facilities for changing, however, some staff might put on their uniforms at home, before they leave for work – which could also pose potential infection risks.

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Gavan Reilly

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