WESTBROOK – After giving me a tour of Maine Medical Center’s 25,000-square-foot laundry facility, Mark Lederle pointed to three people standing on a platform some 6 feet above the floor, surrounded by nylon sacks filled with soiled hospital linens.

And by soiled, I mean soiled — stained with blood, urine, fecal matter and a variety of other unpleasant things.

“That’s got to be the toughest job in here,” said Lederle, who, as lead associate for the facility, has knowledge of and experience in all of the laundry’s major areas. “They work hard, and they deal with some nasty stuff up there.”

With that as my introduction, I soon found myself up on the “sorting deck” where workers stand along a conveyor belt of freshly soiled stuff and sort it as quickly as possible. I donned a protective gown and rubber gloves, and was soon standing next to full-time sorter David Glidden, whose head was gleaming with sweat.

“It keeps you moving, but I like that,” said Glidden, 56, of Portland. “I used to weigh 220, but now I’m down to about 172. It’s like they pay me to go to the gym.”

As I watched, Glidden and two co-workers were all arms and legs, darting about in a space that was about 20 feet long and 6 feet wide, with a conveyor belt on three sides and a dozen or more metal chutes alongside the conveyor.

The chutes each lead to a giant nylon sack suspended from the ceiling by a rail and pulley system, waiting to transport the sorted laundry to a washer. The facility’s main washer is about as big as a car wash, and has 12 different washing chambers.

THEY’RE ALWAYS MOVING

Glidden’s job was to be the first man on the sorting line. He would grab piles of gowns, towels — whatever — as fast as he could, and begin sorting.

If he got items that could go in the first three chutes — flat sheets, fitted sheets or bath towels — he’d throw them in the appropriate spot. With all the other things he handled, he’d try to bunch them together on the belt so the two other workers could grab a pile at a time and toss it down the right chute as quickly as possible.

And since they were tossing things into a lot of different chutes in a lot of different locations, they were always moving.

When I started sorting, I found the toughest part was untangling the stuff — sheets wrapped around bed pads, five gowns twisted together, towels stuffed into fitted sheets. By the time I had my first few items separated, there was a mountain of gowns, scrubs and other linens piling up on the belt.

But then Glidden swooped in and got the pile sorted in seconds.

At one point, I tossed a pile of gowns into a chute, and then noticed there was no sack to catch them. The sacks, I found out, automatically take off via the rail-and-pulley system for the washer when they are full. So my stuff just fell on the floor.

“Happens all the time,” said Lederle. “We just go around and pick that stuff up later.”

But I noticed that for Glidden and his fellow sorters, it didn’t happen much. Although they were working fast, they’d often pause long enough for a new sack to be lowered into place before tossing their laundry down a chute.

I handled my share of stained sheets — brown, red, yellow. But nothing dripping with blood, like the sorters get sometimes from the emergency room. Or nothing reeking of medicinal alcohol, like when they get a batch of laundry from the operating room.

“The smell can get pretty bad, and we can wear masks if we choose to, but I don’t usually need it,” said Glidden.

At one point, there was a hypodermic needle among the linens and things. Lederle snatched it up and explained to me that all the workers in the laundry facility — as many as 24 full-time workers on any given shift — go through safety training, including what to do if you get stuck with a needle.

Basically, the most important thing would be to make sure you retrieve the needle so doctors can see what was in it, and then you’d be taken to Maine Med for examination and treatment.

TOURING THE FACILITY

After sorting for a while, I followed Lederle on a tour of the rest of the facility. The washing is done in several giant machines, but the 12-chamber washer was the most interesting to me. The linens come out of that machine in giant piles that are compressed to the size of a manhole cover to get the water out.

From there, the laundry is automatically transported to a dryer as big as a vacation cottage. After the dryers, the linens go to various folding and ironing machines.

The whole transportation system for the laundry is automated, and computer screens throughout the place help people see what’s being washed or dried in any location at any given time.

I decided to try working a folding and ironing machine. I was given a big bucket of sheets and told to feed flat sheets (and flat sheets only) into the machine by holding the short side of the sheet as taut and straight as possible until the mechanism pulled it in.

Eventually I got the hang of it, and fed five or six correctly. I was surprised to find it made my arms tired. Then I was even more surprised to find that the experienced workers at that machine can feed about 350 sheets an hour.

I watched the sheets I fed get “ironed” as they traveled up and down over about 20 feet of heated, smooth surfaces. At the end, they came out folded.

There were a lot of areas where towels, sheets and clothes were being folded by hand before being packed up and stacked near the loading dock door, where they waited for trucks to take them back to the hospital — where they would get good and dirty, and come back to Glidden and his compatriots on the sorting deck.

 

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

[email protected]