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Laundry room threat to health and wealth

Laundry rooms pose a significant health and fire risk if ventilation extract ductwork is not regularly maintained and cleaned. Darren Ling explains the risks facing hospitals, hotels, prisons and other commercial premises and why regular cleaning is essential
When considering heating and ventilation in a building, thoughts don't often turn towards laundry. Many commercial buildings have the need for a laundry room. Hotels, prisons, hospitals, schools even, and many more often have to provide clean linen such as bed sheets, towels and table cloths. Often the laundry room is in a far corner of the building or in the basement, away from the day-to-day business end. This fact puts the topic of ventilation at a greater level of importance.

The need for well ventilated laundry rooms and the necessity to have tumble dryers vented to the outside of the property to remove any risks is well documented. What is not well documented is the reason for this and the very real risks to the building and its dwellers if these guidelines are not followed. And who will be held responsible if something goes wrong.

Strain on extractor fan

The first threat is to the system itself as failing to maintain a laundry room's ventilation extract ductwork puts excess strain on the extractor fan, shortening its life and forcing it to use more power. These extracts become heavily contaminated by the fluff and lint from the bedding and towels being washed. This blockage reduces the efficiency of the ventilation system preventing airflow, leading to an increase in temperature and causing an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous working environment. One client reported a 10 deg drop in temperature after we had cleaned the ventilation ductwork.

However, the risk to health and the business goes deeper. Dirty extract ductwork can cause respiratory irritation, exposing the building's occupants to fumes such as chlorine, hypochlorite, ammonia and sulphur dioxide.

In addition, the buildup of lint and fluff poses a very real fire hazard particularly where some of the old fashioned dryers have naked pilot lights at the rear of the machines. The risks are to not only employees but also to customers, guests, and residents.

There have already been cases where insurance companies have refused to pay out following a business fire where it was determined that the cause of the fire was dirty kitchen extract ductwork and regular maintenance and cleaning of the ductwork had not been observed. It stands to reason that the same rules will apply if a fire is traced back to dirty laundry extract ductwork.

System Hygienics has carried out various 'one off' laundry cleans over the years at hotels, HM Prisons and care homes. As those responsible are becoming aware of their duties, it is becoming common practice to request laundry extract ductwork cleaning at the same time as kitchen extract ductwork cleaning.

System Hygienics has been visiting a Scottish hospital on an annual basis for a number of years to clean the ventilation ductwork. Despite the regular maintenance programme, the photographs prove the volume of the buildup and therefore the risks involved.

There are five tumble driers that extract straight from the rear of the machines via branch ducts into three exhaust plenums via a main extract duct which is about one metre in diameter.These can easily become partially or completely blocked by a buildup of lint and highly flammable fluff and, of course, combined with heat from the driers, can be a potential source of combustion and should therefore be regularly cleaned. System Hygienics' Jetvent powervac system provides optimal cleaning with outstanding results and minimum disruption, which is essential for most of these businesses.

Laundry extract ductwork should be cleaned at least annually but in some cases where the use is very heavy, more frequent cleaning should be considered. The Central Park Hotel in London has been using our services twice a year for a number of years to ensure they meet their legal obligations and guarantee as much as possible the safety of their staff and guests.

The guidelines are clear. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 places a duty of care on all employers to 'provide and maintain a working environment that is, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe and without risk to health'.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 place a specific duty for every employer to make a 'suitable and sufficient assessment of risks to the health and safety of his employees to which they are exposed whilst they are at work and the risk to the health and safety of persons not in his employment'.

Exposure to contamination

For healthcare establishments, System Hygienics' recommendations are supported by the Department of Health's Health Technical Memorandum (HTM) 03-01 - 'Specialised Ventilation in Healthcare Premises', which offers guidance on how hospitals can meet their legal requirements. It states: 'If the ventilation plant has been installed to dilute or contain harmful substances, its failure may expose people to unacceptable levels of contamination. Proven breaches of the statutory requirements can result in prosecution and may also give rise to a civil suit against the operators.'

In addition, The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 places a duty of care on the building owner to take such general fire precautions and states that systems designed to control fire risk - including ventilation ductwork - should be maintained in an efficient state, in efficient working order and in good repair.

When cleaning any type of ductwork, whether ventilation, laundry or kitchen extracts, photographic evidence along with a risk assessment should be recorded and protective measures should be put in place to control any risks identified. Photographic evidence goes a long way to proving you are meeting your obligations.

// The author is a director of System Hygienics //
7 March 2013

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