Best Practices in Sterile Processing

Why Is It So Important?

  • Your Autoclave can quit sterilizing long before it stops turning on/off.
  • 98% of clients who say “It’s never had a problem before…,” actually have had hidden safety issues with their Autoclaves that they didn’t realize existed until our professionals inspected the machine.
  • Many safety devices are hidden from view and if compromised or broken pose severe risk to your staff and patients.
  • Frequent, professional eyes on your Autoclave provides the opportunity to spot parts that are trending toward failure, allowing replacement to be planned and convenient rather than an emergency. The Preventive Maintenance packages have a parts replacement plan built in.
  • Autoclaves are designed to operate at sea level, and the high altitudes within New Mexico require that initial calibration be done and that regular calibration checks are done and adjustments made, when necessary, to keep the machine performing properly.

Three risk areas

There are three main risk areas in Sterile Processing:  People, Process, and Technology.  Here is an overview of some general Best Practices we recommend you follow in each of these areas, regardless of your industry.  Southwest Sterilizers does offer Sterile Processing Consulting sessions for clients who need help implementing industry best practices.  Expand each section below for more information.  We also have helpful resource information on our “Learn” page.

  • All staff responsible for running cycles in your Autoclave need to be trained in how to run the machine, how to choose cycle parameters, and how to load the Autoclave properly. Your Operations Manual is a wealth of information. If you don’t have a manual for your machine, please contact us for a free electronic copy.  Southwest Sterilizers also offers In-Service Group Trainings for those who prefer to learn from and ask questions of a human instead of just reading a manufacturer’s manual.
  • Each office should have an Infection Control Coordinator (ICC).  The role of the ICC is to design, assign responsibilities for and control your office’s Sterile Process.  The ICC should be one of the key roles in your office.  See “Staying Ahead of the [Risk] Curve” on our Learn page for more information.
  • Every facility with sterile processing needs should have start-to-finish procedures outlined for staff and have an Infection Control Coordinator (ICC) designated to manage it.
  • In developing start-to-finish procedures, here are some questions to consider:
    • How do you clean the instruments/tools prior to sterilization? (Consider the materials and methods you use as well as any safety protocols Staff must follow.)
    • How do you prepare the instruments for sterilization? (Are you using sterile pouches, packs, or sterilization cases?)
    • Are you familiar with each instrument’s Instructions For Use (IFU)? The manufacturer will be able to provide you with specific guidelines on how each instrument must be prepared and what the parameters are for sterilization.
    • How are you loading the autoclave? Overloading the autoclave is one of the most common reasons for sterilization failure we see in autoclaves brought in for repair. Improper loading is something that can be easily prevented. We also offer Load Test Validation Studies that can prove that your loads are capable of being sterilized.
      • Examples of common errors that we see related to these:
        • Not processing hinged instruments in the open position.
        • Not placing bowls, glassware or trays in the correct orientation.
        • Allowing pouches to touch the side of the autoclave chamber.
        • Piling pouches on top of one another.
    • Do you have responsible Load Planning protocols in place? (For example, loads shouldn’t consist of mixed metals.)
    • What is your process for unloading the autoclave? Packs and pouches must be dry when removing them from the autoclave or risk of re-contamination is high.
    • If dry, sterilized instruments are not used immediately, what is your procedure for storing them to maintain sterile integrity?
  • Retain all Documentation – Autoclave Cycle Log Sheets, Spore Test Reports, Service Reports, Load Test Validation Study Reports, etc – as outlined by your attorney, in case of an Audit or a Claim Investigation.
  • Establish guidelines for periodically evaluating your Sterile Process procedures to ensure that they still meet the needs of your growing business and for properly training and onboarding new staff.
  • Autoclaves can last many years if properly maintained and cared for.
  • The Operations Manual for your Autoclave provides a wealth of information. All staff who use the Autoclave should be familiar with this information.
  • Regular weekly maintenance of your Autoclave by Staff goes a long way toward keeping your machine in tip-top shape. Some key maintenance steps:
    • Wiping or cleaning the chamber (using the proper cleaning agent for your machine).
    • Wiping and inspecting the door gasket for any micro-tears or cracks. (The dry climate in NM can wear out the door gasket faster than in other climates.)
    • Changing the water in the reservoir with fresh, distilled water. You should change the water every 20 cycles or at least once per week.
    • Cleaning tray racks or shelves. (Buildup on these can transfer unsterile material to your instruments during the sterilization process.)
  • Regular maintenance of your Autoclave by a Professional Autoclave Technician should happen on a quarterly, semiannual or annual frequency, based on several factors related to your sterile process. If you aren’t sure which frequency or what type of maintenance program is the best for your facility, we can help you determine that.  Clients of ours who subscribe to a Safety Inspection or Preventive Maintenance Program find that they experience less unplanned downtime and spend less money throughout the year.
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