The Benefits of Rigid Sterilization Containers


These durable devices keep instruments sterile, safe and secure.

My hospital’s sterile processing department is responsible for turning around 1,500 instrument trays a day. Our surgeons specialize in a variety of orthopedic procedures, including total joints and spine, so our reprocessing techs handle a high volume of complex instrumentation. It’s important that they take every measure possible to ensure the tools are handled correctly and properly sterilized to protect our patients from harm by limiting the risks of SSIs. There is no room to cut corners.

Our sterile processing department is large (around 15,000 square feet) and staffed by about 75 sterile processing technicians who work three different shifts. As the volume of procedures continues to grow, our surgeons require more surgical instruments and more specialized tools than ever before. For these reasons, we rely heavily on rigid sterilization containers to keep the instruments secure and sterile. When used correctly, they benefit our department in important ways.

Maximized storage. Ask any sterile processing director and they will tell you there never seems to be enough room to store stacks of instrument trays. That’s why we need to be smart in order to maximize every inch of shelf space. Unlike instrument trays wrapped in blue wrap, you can stack containers in storage two at a time, one on top of the other, as long as they are the same size. Rigid containers are made of stainless steel or anodized aluminum, sturdy materials that won’t easily bend or crack.

According to The Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI), rigid sterilization containers and their contents should not exceed 25 pounds to make them easier to lift and move and to protect staff members from muscle strain injuries. We sometimes go just a few pounds over that limit, depending on the needs of the surgeon, who might request a couple extra mallets in their tray, which can tack on additional weight.

Keep in mind that rigid containers can be awkward for your staff to handle. If a technician drops a container or angles it awkwardly during transport or storage, instruments can easily puncture through the filter.  Some staff have reported being cut by the edge of a container’s lid, which can get sharp after continuous use and wear. Your staff are your most significant asset. By ensuring they can perform their duties without injury and strain, and can do so with the necessary attention to detail, patient safety is improved. 

Barrier protection. Instruments tend to punch through blue wrap when you stack trays or when a reprocessing technician tosses a sterilized tray into the case cart rather than placing it in carefully. Sometimes a tray will keep cycling through the sterilization process and will not get opened until the tenth time. When this happens, the wrap has broken down significantly and is much easier to penetrate. Holes in blue wrap are often caused by sharp corners or when a staff member mishandles a tray.

SOLID OPTION Rigid containers are superior to blue wrap for protecting instruments and helping to keep the surgical schedule on track.

For these reasons, we use corner protectors and strips of padding made of medical-grade paper and foam urethane. We wrap two strips of padding around wrapped trays to help protect them from damage that can happen during sterilization, storage and transport. The padded strips are placed along the edges of a wrapped tray lengthwise, providing a bit of extra cushion.

Heavy and often bulky orthopedic tools can strain and stretch blue wrap, leading to tears and even injuries to staff members who are moving or handling the trays. Once the blue wrap is punctured, our department is forced to reprocess the tray, which can cause unwanted case delays, something a busy surgical facility cannot afford. Rigid containers eliminate these concerns. When used correctly, they protect instrument sets much more effectively and consistently than blue wrap and tape do.

However, you do need to consider regular maintenance requirements and the expense of replacement parts associated with the use of rigid containers. Some containers require four filters that provide a microbial barrier while others only require two. The gasket under the lid of many containers that creates a seal can tear after repeated use, and a container’s locking mechanisms might need to be tightened or replaced from time to time. Do your research before you place a large order with a manufacturer to make sure you are getting a product with a proven track record of durability and that works best for your department.

Well-maintained containers can last for years. However, industry experts have different thoughts about the lifespan of containers and the amount of upkeep they need to remain safe and effective. We’ve been using the same rigid containers for many years and can test the integrity of the seals with talcum powder and a blue light. You can test for any penetration of the talcum powder by aerosolizing around the container and lid seam and using the light to see the amount of powder that penetrated the seal of the sterilized container. If a container looks damaged or if we notice a lid does not seal properly, we replace it or sometimes just replace the lid.

Every facility is different, and it all comes down to case volume, but we can use a single rigid container six times in one day if necessary. The containers require a significant upfront investment, but are much more cost effective than blue wrap in the long run. They also produce less waste by eliminating the use of wrap, which is difficult to recycle, making them better for the environment. For me and my busy staff, the rigid container is always the better and safer option. OSM 

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