Sterile processing professionals work in dental clinics, optometry offices,
health clinics and the food industry. But most work in hospitals.
They sterilize all instrumentation for hospitals' emergency rooms, operating
rooms and labor and delivery areas.
Dennis Stephenson says the job is quite a bit more complicated than it
used to be. In the old days, he says, sterile processing technicians used
to assemble trays with three or four instruments in them. Now, there are upwards
of 200 pieces.
The instruments are collected from surgical tables and brought to the sterile
processing room, where a technician is ready to clean them.
"They're already pre-mixed and you just drop them in to the machine --
there's a little compartment for that container -- you just pop it in there
and close the door and let it go," Stephenson says.
"Today's sterilization technology is basically automated. Almost everything
is automated now. You just have to pay attention to your printouts, which
give you the parameters of the machine."
Instrument sets are put in a steam machine called an autoclave. Tools are
left in the autoclave to run through various cycles, usually three to five
minutes to wash and 35 minutes to dry.
There are different ways to sterilize the instruments. Ethylene oxide (ETO),
steam and Steris -- a low-grade acid -- are all used. Steris is a fluid that
permeates the surface of the material to be cleaned.
Sandra Galeski is the materials coordinator in the operating room at a
hospital. There are five main machines in her sterile processing room: an
ultrasonic machine, which breaks up microscopic debris, a washer, a heat sealer
and the main autoclaves.
"It's not just a series of buttons that you have to push to operate the
autoclave," she says. "There's a lot of equipment that they have to be able
to run and operate."
Galeski says there are some basic computer skills required.
Helen Vandoremalen is the manager of the regional processing center at
a women's health center. Where she works, there are three levels of technicians.
The first, which does not have to take a certification course, is responsible
for pickup and delivery of the surgical trays. The second cleans the instruments
in decontamination. And the third level works with surgeons in the operating
room (these are sometimes called scrub techs).
Vandoremalen says that sterile processing technicians in the operating
room need good communication skills, good problem solving skills and an even
temperament to help surgeons better perform their job.
"If they want something and that thing isn't available, you can't just
say, 'Oh, sorry. We don't have that.' You've got a patient on the table and
they need something, so you've got to be able to think on your feet, to say,
'Well, I haven't got this, but I can give you that, and that will probably
suit your needs.'"
The work is often performed in tight quarters. There is lots of heavy lifting,
making it difficult work for the disabled.
Stephenson says that a disabled person would still be able to contribute
to a sterile processing department in some capacities, though.
Make sure medical instruments are properly cleaned