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Medical nonwovens: better safety through better products.

OSHA rulings and increased awareness by healthcare providers lead the shift to better barrier products

AIDS. Hepatitis. Tuberculosis. All care diseases of today. And all have had a major impact on the nonwovens industry. The medical nonwovens end product manufacturers - the suppliers of gowns, drapes, masks and other disposable protective materials - exist to prevent healthcare workers from contracting these and other contagious disease during the treatment of infected patients. Nonwovens play a very large role in protecting healthcare staff; indeed, the medical segment of the nonwovens industry-$1.5 billion at the roll goods level - is one of the more visible and recognizable end uses for nonwovens.

Several industry trends have marked the past year within the medical nonwovens segment. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) ruling concerning worker protection from blood borne pathogens has had the most profound effect. The shift to polyethylene reinforced gowns and other products has continued, spurred on by the OSHA ruling. Better barrier products have experienced increased demand and a complete barrier protection package in general is growing as customers look for total protection in the operating room. Face shields, head covers, boots and improved double gloves and masks are all showing marked increases.

In addition, rising concerns from healthcare institutions and workers, the changing European and growing Asian economic marketplaces and the increasing amount of protection demanded by an expanding medical and dental industry have also had an effect on the production of medical nonwoven products.

The OSHA Impact

In the time since the OSHA ruling, which took effect on March 6, 1992, many nonwoven end product manufacturers have shifted gears to concentrate on introducing higher barrier performance products, aiding customers in complying with the government agency's ruling.

The OSHA ruling, in short, specifies that all employers must provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to any of their employees who are at risk of exposure to blood or other potentially infectious body fluids. PPE is defined by OSHA as "specialized clothing or equipment worn by an employee for protection against a hazard" and does not include general work clothes. OSHA makes it clear that employers must provide any and all items necessary to protect their workers against exposure. Blood and body fluid strikethrough must be prevented by the PPE. The ruling does not declare that disposables are the better method for compliance, but it does outline extensive laundry procedures that must be followed for reusable materials.

As a result, end product manufacturers have noticed increased orders specifically for better barrier products. "OSHA has increased healthcare personnel's idea of protection beyond the old universal precautions," said David Covington, scientist, Professional Healthcare Group, Kimberly-Clark, Roswell, GA. The Professional healthcare Group converts nonwoven roll goods into a wide range of medical products.

Jack Kraemer, vice president-marketing at Baxter Healthcare, McGaw Park, IL, one of the largest medical converters, agreed. "Our customers are looking for the best barrier, best cost and best comfort."

As a result of the increased demands for better barrier products, polyethylene and film reinforced gowns and other reinforced products that offer greater protection against blood strikethrough have experienced increased demand. Earl Hall, vice president-manufacturing at White Knight, a converter in Asheville, NC, commented on the shift in the mix of products the company now offers. "There has been a trend at White Knight towards the products that offer the benefit of added or increased protection," he said.

The ruling has also generated many questions from healthcare providers, as OSHA left unclear the definition of "appropriate protection." Actual guidelines outlining the protective apparel required in specific operations and procedures were not provided in the OSHA ruling. It has been left up to the healthcare institutions to develop their own protection strategies for use throughout the entire institution.

Some end product manufacturers have been working with customers to help them define appropriate protective apparel needs, assisting in the formation of a strategy that covers the whole range of medical care situations. "We have been assisting our customers with the development of a rationale for their product usage in specific situations," commented Joseph Thompson, manager-research and development, Baxter Custom Sterile Division.

The Recession, The Environment

And Global Expansion

While a slow U.S. economy impacted many manufacturng businesses, medical converters have seen few affects. "We sell required products," commented John McDowell, consultant for Johnson & Johnson Medical, Arlington, TX, echoing sentiment shared by nearly all medical converters and roll goods producers. Since the demand for healthcare is inelastic, products will always be required by institutions. The medical products industry is essentially recession-proof and steady and can even increase in slower economic times.

The medical protective apparel industry is also outfitting more and more people outside the hospital setting. "There has been a growth in the amount of protective apparel used outside the operating room in hospitals," reported Roger Sisterman, vice president-manufacturing at Baxter. Mr. Covington agreed. "The big trend with barrier protection is that it is going beyond the hospital to laboratories, dentist offices and to the general floor staff at healthcare facilities," he commented.

An increasing variety of nonwoven medical products have also been developed to adapt to changing medical techniques. As medical breakthroughs advance less invasive procedures, medical converters have adapted products to fit new requirements. Kimberly-Clark's laparoscopic cholecystectomy surgical drape is an example of just such a new product.

Surgical drapes with fluid retention pockets are another innovation, borne from the increased awareness of blood borne pathogens. End product manufacturers are continually being asked to create newer, better, more comfortable protective products.

In the environmental arena, several converters have reported that some of their customers are re-examining the advantages and disadvantages of single-use versus reusable products, specifically from an environmental perspective. While the initial furor over disposability and solid waste has died down to some degree, this remains a critical issue to the nonwovens industry across the board.

Most end product manufacturers do not predict any radical changes in the amount of single-use products used by healthcare facilities; however, they admit that the environmental question concerning single-use materials and the disposing of the disposables does merit further research and investigation and all companies are investing in research on waste disposable solutions.

On a global scale, while most converters felt that the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would have only a small impact on their business, many were optimistic about the prospect of a unified Europe and expanding Asian markets. With companies such as Baxter, White Knight and Johnson & Johnson already in place with international operations and others like Kimberly-Clark just entering the European market, all are hoping to increase business there.

Following the development of a unified European marketplace would be the establishment of a set of European medical production requirements similar to ISO standards. As European manufacturers improve production to meet these levels and higher quality products become available, the conversion to nonwoven single-use products should occur more quickly. In addition, nonwoven medical products should profit from increased awareness and concern for healthcare worker protection in Europe and also from a rise in the cost of labor and capital investment for reusables.

Medical Nonwovens: A Roll Goods Perpective

The companies that supply roll good materials to the medical end product manufacturers - companies such as Du Pont, Kimberly-Clark, Fiberweb North America and Dexter Nonwovens - have their own viewpoints on some of the current trends in the industry.

The OSHA rulings have had a slightly different impact on roll goods manufacturers. While across the board companies have reported an increase in demand for better fabrics for medical protective apparel, individual companies have experienced surges in demand for specific materials.

Fiberweb, for example, reported a 30% increase in demand for face mask materials, with similar increases in other "accessory" areas, indicating that converters are looking to supply the peripheral products to complete the barrier package. There has also been an increased interest in the company's spunbonded products from laminators who are looking to manufacture impervious products.

Ronald Brooker, market manager, Kimberly-Clark Nonwovens, Roswell, GA, reports that K-C has seen increases as well, but once again in other areas. "We have seen unit volume sales increase, with by far the biggest increase in the dental industry."

The dental industry is new to the impervious protective garment industry and has not had a great deal of involvement with C6HA and other government regulatory bodies. As a result, dentists are going to extremes to comply with OSHA regulations to avoid any repercussions, requesting higher barrier products to meet these standards.

John Brett, communications manager, "Sontara" Innovative Fabric Systems, Du Pont, Old Hickory, TN, said that Du Pont is looking at the OSHA issue as an opportunity for nonwovens, but only ff the industry works together. "We as an industry must get the message out to the markets required to comply with the new regulations," said Mr. Brett, adding that the nonwovens industry should not take it for granted that these new market segments will opt for single-use products.

"To take full advantage of the opportunity the OSHA regulations may offer,' he continued, "our industry should consider communicating to these markets to build awareness of the performance benefits and environmental considerations of single-use protective apparel versus reusables," he said.

Converters are also looking for improved product performance in terms of higher barrier levels in barrier products, leading to a trend towards technological improvements. Raymond Dunleavy, group marketing and sales manager, Medical Division, Fiberweb North America, Simpsonville, SC, offered face mask material as a specific example. "Filtration and breathability targets for mask roll goods that stretch the production capabilities are fast becoming the norm. Everyone realizes that barrier protection is a lot more serious today."

Mr. Brooker echoed those sentiments. "A trend towards driving technologies to create better uniformity in spunbonded products is evident," he commented.

As healthcare facilities have become more exacting in their demands for medical products, the converters have passed on increasingly stringent demands to roll goods manufacturers. Specific quality requirements and traceability within production processes are now standard requirements.

Absorbent technology in nonwovens has also received more attention recently. The ability to mix in a superabsorbent to make a better product is a benefit nonwovens have gained against traditional woven wipes and gauze and is an area that several companies are exploring in the search for new markets and applications.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Rodman Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on medical nonwoven rolls goods industry
Author:Sullivan, Scott D.
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Date:Oct 1, 1992
Words:1717
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