Sterile gowning: room for improvement
Ask any cleanroom operator and chances are he or she will find something about sterile gowns that could be improved. In fact,
Kimberly-Clark Professional (Dallas, TX) did just that, spending the better part of two years interviewing cleanroom operators,
visiting them in their workplaces, and evaluating the features and functions of traditional sterile cleanroom gowns to identify
areas in which there was potential room for improvement.
Key findings of that research includes the following:
- The sterile cleanroom gowning process takes between 5 and 10 minutes for the vast majority of cleanroom operators
- Almost one-third of cleanroom operators indicate that cleanroom coveralls are the most difficult part of the six-step gowning
process, and that donning coveralls takes an average of 30% of the entire gowning process time
- Cleanroom operators are disposing of an average of 10% of their sterile cleanroom garments every week as a result of exterior
contamination during the gowning process
- Most new cleanroom operators need 30 hours of initial training on current good manufacturing practices (CGMP) donning procedures
before they are allowed in the cleanroom itself and an average of 6 hours of ongoing training each week
- More than 50% of cleanroom operators reported garments ripping out or billowing because of poor fit
- One-third of cleanroom operators report being unsure of their garment's sterility because of the appearance of its packaging.
- Approximately 87% of cleanroom operators would consider switching to a new garment if it was more comfortable and offered
less risk of contamination.
The issue of garment comfort was also addressed. Scientific research in the workplace has revealed that a moderate variation
in body temperature can greatly reduce concentration and increase risk-inducing behavior. Workers unable to maintain a thermo-neutral
zone, or comfort zone, have a higher tendency to become injured and need time off from work, thus reducing productivity. In
fact, more than 40% of cleanroom operators polled during Kimberly-Clark's research report employees need to exit the cleanroom
because of overheating on a regular basis.
Designing a new gowning approach
A multifunctional product development team at Kimberly-Clark Professional set out to design a new approach to sterile gowning
that would eliminate the problems identified during the company's research. The resulting Clean Don Technology provides the following features:
- A patent-pending snap technology that features builtin snaps that gather up legs and arms to lower the risk of the garment
touching the floor, then automatically release as the garment is put on. This eliminates problems associated with traditional
cleanroom garments, in which the garments' arms and legs typically dangle freely as the operator dons the garment, thus increasing
the chance that those dangling arms and legs may touch the floor and contaminate the garment. This problem with traditional
garments is particularly acute with individuals who are on the shorter, yet portlier side, meaning they often have to go up
one garment size and therefore would have an even more difficult time keeping the longer dangling arms and legs of the garment
from touching the floor.
- An innovative inside-out fold pattern that presents the inside of the garment as the package is opened, reducing the risk
of touching and contaminating the outside of the apparel.
- A highly visible blue line along the inside of the garment that signals the proper place to grasp while gowning, helping workers
avoid touching the exterior of the garment.
- Thumb loops that help keep the garment from riding up the arm and help to maintain the glove–garment interface.
- A unique process to package the new garments for sterility assurance. The technology uses a vacuum seal process to allow the
breathable SMS fabric to be sterilized with gamma irradiation. The unique look and irradiation indicators on each package
help to confirm irradiation and sterility.
- A roomy design that is less likely to rip out than ANSI minimums because it provides 12% more chest room and 6% longer body
length. At the same time, the garments' elastic waist and back reduce loose-fitting material that could contact work surfaces
or billow out, forcing air to exit the garment at its extremities.
- An SMS material that provides a cloth-like feel and is 25 times more breathable than Tyvek (Dupont)
Sharing and evaluating the new garment and donning concepts with cleanroom operators were crucial to ensuring the new approach
was successful. Testing of the Clean-Don Technology with cleanroom operators revealed the following:
- 93% of operators preferred the heavy vacuum-sealed package for providing greater sterility assurance. Operators also said
they would have no problems stacking the heavily vacuumed packages.
- 86% of the operators prefer the coverall's thumb loops to hold the sleeves in place.
- 86% of operators felt the blue stripe would lower the risk of contamination that would result from touching the outside of
the garment or contacting a nonsterile surface, and would help facilitate aseptic gowning. Operators estimated that the disposal
of coveralls contaminated during the donning process would be reduced by 52% with the new garment and donning concept.
- A full 100% of operators agreed that the arm and leg snaps would help prevent contamination during the gowning process and
that the overall approach would provide better compliance in maintaining sterility.
- A full 100% of operators thought the material felt more like cloth than the leading competitive sterile cleanroom coverall,
which was largely described as "hot, sweaty, and plastic-feeling."
- 93% of operators felt the new coverall design would provide greater ease of training. The average estimated time saved in
the donning process among all operators studied was approximately one minute.
Validation and training: inculcating the new approach
One of the necessary steps when validating a new sterile cleanroom gown is to carefully review the garment's certification.
A company must be sure to ask its garment supplier for the following:
- Certificates of conformance, which verify that a specific product lot conforms to all specifications before the lot is released.
Physical characteristics should be tested in accordance with relevant ASTM standards. Particles should be tested in accordance
with relevant IEST standards.
- Certificates of irradiation, which document the minimum and maximum dosage of irradiation that a product received. Look for
sterilization validation documentation that confirms that the doses have been verified, the loading patterns were sufficient,
and that the process is audited on a regular basis.
A variety of functions will need to be involved in the approval process for a new cleanroom gown. First, safety personnel
must approve the use of a new product. Each local safety officer must ensure that the product will not violate any Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) or Occupational Safety and Health Adminstration (OSHA) regulations or permits. Any changes to processes
are also concerns for regulatory personnel, because they may impact the company's FDA license. After acceptance by safety
and regulatory officers, quality personnel must be included and will play a key role in testing and accepting the new product
or process. Quality assurance experts are involved in reviewing all of the procedures and process records, testing the product
to ensure its sterility, and approving the final selection based on data. The quality control organization will inspect all
incoming sterile products, police the environment, and report the result. The purchasing department is the final step in the
process and often provides rubber-stamp approval for ordering the products already accepted by the other experts.
Most pharmaceutical companies conduct a new garment validation process for three to nine months, during which time the new
garments would be worn in a controlled area, though not necessarily in the actual cleanroom in which the garment is designed
to be worn.
In many pharmaceutical companies, a new sterile gown also will need to undergo testing on three lots before validating and
approving it. In some cases, a change to the standards of practice for that environment also will be required.
Many users will assess a garment's sterility on-site by using contact plates or swabs containing a nutrient media. To formally
validate gamma- or ebeam-irradiated garments for sterility assurance levels, use ANSI/AAMI/ISO 1137- 1994 "Sterilization of
Health Care Products: Requirements for Validation and Routine Control, Radiation Sterilization" and ANSI/AAMI/ISO 11737-1-1995
"Sterilization of Medical Devices: Microbiological Methods, Part 1: Estimation of Population of Microorganisms on Products."
Validating a new sterile cleanroom garment is not a task to be undertaken lightly. However, when a new approach to sterile
gowning can help improve the gowning process, reduce opportunities for operator error, and minimize the risk of contamination,
it provides a strong incentive for pharmaceutical companies to consider switching.
Damon Larkin is a Product Marketing Leader, Cleanroom Apparel, at Kimberly-Clark Professional, 1400 Holcomb Bridge Road, Roswell,
GA 30076, tel. 770.587.8000. firstname.lastname@example.org