The air inside the noisy and humid interior of Northwest Health Care Linen’s Bellingham facility smells thick with soap and cleaning agents—which is fitting, because although the plant operates on a grand and more complex scale, it is, in its most basic sense, a laundromat.
Here, soiled bed sheets, lab coats and other linens are trucked to the factory floor from medical facilities, surgery centers and outpatient clinics around the region. Workers process, clean and package nearly 50,000 pounds of laundry per day, close to 16 million pounds each year.
James Hall, the company’s founder and CEO, started the business in 1992 after word-of-mouth acclaim grew for an on-site laundry facility he operated as part of an extended-care center he owned at the time.
“[The demand] was there, so we decided to give it a go,” Hall said. “Basically, our philosophy was to follow the patients.”
Hall said the steady growth of his company over the past 20 years has corresponded with regional growth in outpatient medical services.
Northwest Health Care Linen started by building a local client base, initially working with PeaceHealth. It also established a strong relationship with Island Hospital in Anacortes.
Bill Akers, the company’s director of customer service, said business really took off when Northwest Health Care Linen moved into south Seattle and the Puget Sound area.
Today, outpatient medical centers make up a significant portion of the company’s customer base, but it also serves standalone doctors’ offices and smaller medical clinics, as well as larger health providers, including the Franciscan Health System in Tacoma.
And while the company’s business has always been to make soiled linens clean again, the process of doing so entails some dirty work.
Special attention to protect employees
Northwest Health Care Linen’s facility is divided into two sections, one for intake and sorting soiled linen, the other for packaging and shipping cleaned material.
The overriding rule on the production floor is to ensure there is no cross-contamination, Hall said.
The company employs about 125 people all together, which includes workers on the floor and a sales and marketing staff. Nearly all of its employees work full-time, most of them in Bellingham, Hall said. The firm also operates a small transfer facility in Sumner, Wash., as well a fleet of about 15 vehicles, including small trucks, trailers and tractors.
Among workers on the floor, the sorters, who pick out garbage and sort dirty linens from among incoming loads that move down a conveyor belt, must be particularly diligent and attentive. They are exposed to a variety of health and safety risks, including blood-borne pathogens, infectious bacteria, bed bugs and—although Hall said it is a rare occurrence—errant needles, or “sharps,” as they are called in the medical world.
The company has evolved its methods for sorting out soiled linens in order to avoid accidental jabs from needles, including updated procedures on checking and emptying pockets on lab coats.
Workers on the floor wear medical scrubs, along with varying levels of safety gear, including hair caps, face masks, booties and gloves. The company enforces a minimum requirement for on-the-job apparel, but added protection is left up to employees, Akers said.
“They have options there, but there are certain, basic things that they have to wear,” Akers said.
A major element of Northwest Health Care Linen, and the one the company is probably most proud of, is its adherence to a stringent set of cleanliness guidelines.
Earlier this year, the company was one of the first three medical-laundry facilities in the nation to earn a “hygienically clean” certification from the Textile Rental Services Association, a national trade group.
The certification requires third-party biological testing and inspection of a facility’s cleaning process and end products at least twice per year.
The fact that the new certification tests the clean linens that come out of the facility, and not just the various aspects of the cleaning process itself is unique among standards’ accreditations in the industry, Hall said.
In addition to ensuring high standards, the certification acts as a marketing tool for the company, allowing it to build better trust with its clients.
“They like that the process is correct, but they are also assured that what they are getting is hygienically cleaned,” Hall said.
Working with clients in cost-cutting mode
While the company tries to keep its services both affordable and competitive within its field, the higher standards do mean services are more expensive. Sales staff tend to target clients that are willing to pay a little bit extra for quality.
This presents challenges.
In recent years, the consulting component of the Northwest Health Care Linen has seen greater demand, as more health providers look for ways to cut costs without having to sacrifice their quality.
Kelsey Van Miert, who handles marketing and customer support for the company, said a lot of her attention out in the field these days is devoted to teaching customers how to use less linen as a cost-cutting measure.
Cost-effectiveness is on the mind of many of Northwest Health Care Linen’s clients, Van Miert said.
“We’re trying to teach people how to use less,” Van Miert said.
The strategy seems counter-productive, as the company’s success depends on a steady supply of dirty linens to wash.
But Hall said the business strategy is to stay focused on long-term customer service and development, with strong attention to cleanliness.
Akers said they want to look for a “win-win” situation for everyone.
“If you deal straight with people and you truly show them that you’re a partner and you want to manage their linen with them, they buy into that,” Akers said.
Being so closely tied to the health care world does mean that, as is the case with pretty much every business connected to medicine, the future has uncertainties.
With increasing consolidation among health providers, Hall said Northwest Health Care Linen must continue to prove its worth to its larger clients to survive. The company must show it can offer not just cleanliness and safety to clients, but also make impacts to their bottom lines, he said.
“The market is changing,” Hall said, “and there’s going to be fewer customers.”
Evan Marczynski, staff reporter for The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared in the September print edition of The Bellingham Business Journal as an installment of “The Dirt,” a recurring series that looks at people and companies who do dirty jobs in Whatcom County.