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Give Me a Break: What It Takes to Make the Most of Sterile Processing Breaks

The break room at my first sterile processing job was in the morgue. Okay, it was no longer the morgue when we were using it, but that didn’t matter at 1 a.m. on a Sunday when all you could think of was all the bodies that had been laid right where my lunchbox was now open for a quick snack. Fun times.

While most of your break rooms probably had less morbid origins than this one, the reality is that many of these areas range the spectrum from cramped back hallways to spacious lounges. Some have televisions, fridges, microwaves, toasters, and coffee makers. In others, you would be lucky to find a chair without some sort of crack, cut, or unrecognizable stain on it. While we all deal with different standards of break room quality, there is such a thing as a good sterile processing break and a bad one. This article will give you five keys to making the most of your 15 minutes of rest and relaxation for yourselves and your team members.

1. Cold, clean fridge
Believe it or not, one of the most common frustrations and sources of conflict around the sterile processing break room has to do with fridge management. There are countless horror stories out there about stolen lunches, rotting produce, exploding Cokes in the freezer, lack of available space, etc. While these issues are not isolated to the sterile processing workforce, they are a great place to start cultivating a break room experience that is positive, rather than painful for your technicians.

How often and by whom is your break room fridge cleaned out? And by cleaned, I mean emptied of old and expired goods, wiped down, and reset in the way that most of us would like to keep our own fridges at home. Removing old food on a weekly basis is a good start, but it’s easy to let little stains and spills remain over time and build up to a level that adds an unnecessary yuck factor to break room experience. No one wants to see that ketchup stain in the produce drawer six weeks in a row.

If your department struggles in this area, ask your manager if they will dedicate 15 minutes of department time once a week to ask for a volunteer to take dominion of your break room fridge. I know, it’s not a glorious job. But we’re used to working hard for a higher cause in sterile processing. This cause is one that will pay dividends in happier lunches and a better experience each and every time you open that swinging door.

2. Controlled environment
Outside of clean fridges, another common break room complaint is dealing with an uncontrolled environment. This can take various forms, depending on your context. Sometimes break rooms are not located in more restricted areas of the department, so other departments may be able to wander in and out at their leisure. If you are sharing a break room with another department, that may not be a big deal. However, if this is supposed to be a dedicated break area for sterile processing, having others coming in and out may cause unnecessary irritation and distraction at a time when you’re really trying to tune out.

Uncontrolled access to break rooms also makes it difficult for technicians to leave items like books, drinks, and other personal items unattended when there’s really no way to know who could walk in and out. While most departments have lockers or cubbyholes available for staff, these are not always in areas easily accessible to the break room, which adds another layer of inconvenience (and time) to a technician’s break. Remember, the goal here is to make it easy for our teams to enjoy their limited breaks. A revolving break room door poses a major challenge to that goal.

3. Cushioned and comfortable
Speaking of enjoying our breaks, how do your feet feel after four hours of standing on concrete floors or walking back and forth in front of a sink, while lifting, bending, and pushing trays through the decontamination process? Ready to take a load off, I’m sure. Which brings us to another key to break room excellence—plenty of comfortable seating for department staff. This may seem blatantly obvious, but many of you have experienced break rooms that were built for a maximum of six technicians to take breaks at any one time, even though you have 20 technicians present on any given shift. If the break room is not large enough or there are not enough seats for all the staff who may need to make use of the area, then it’s not a break room; it’s a VIP staging area, only available on a first-come, first-served basis. This is no way to make your technicians feel valued or rested during their breaks.

4. Clear communication
While not a physical aspect of the break room itself, clear communication can make or break a good break experience in sterile processing. By this, I mean ensuring everyone not on break knows who is on break and how to continue the workflow without interrupting their valuable, but short break or lunch times. This burden of clear communication runs both ways. If you want a good, uninterrupted break, make sure to hand off valuable information to your teammates before leaving the floor. It may seem like 15 minutes isn’t a big deal, but something as simple as emptying one last washer load before leaving the floor can mean another sterilizer load is able to run before the end of the night. Think ahead and share the intel with your team so you can enjoy you break physically and mentally.

5. Consciously celebratory
The final key to cultivating great break experiences in your sterile processing department is to be consciously celebratory. Many of the best memories of your sterile processing career won’t happen on the processing floor; they’ll happen in your break room: baby showers, birthdays, wedding announcements, citizenship approvals, graduation celebrations, and more. While every day can’t be a celebration, being intentional about creating a team who really cares about each other and is willing to celebrate each other’s milestones—both inside and outside of department life—can make your break room an engine of cultural growth, trust, and teamwork. Make room for those who may not be the celebrating kind, but make it a point to find regular excuses to add some spice to the monotony of department life by highlighting positive events in your break room space.

These small steps can be key to breaking your sterile processing break room out of the rut of mediocrity and turning it into a place that can actually refresh your team for that next wave of life-saving activity. Here’s to many great breaks and the great work they fuel in your department!


Feature articles exclusively for Ultra Clean Systems by Weston “Hank” Balch, BS, MDiv, CRCST, CER, CIS, CHL

Weapon of Mass Microbial Destruction * Professional Clean Freak * Podcast Host * Safety Addict * CS/SPD Consultant

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