Sterile Processing Professional  What They Do

Just the Facts

Insider Info

dotSterile processing professionals work in dental clinics, optometry offices, health clinics and the food industry. But most work in hospitals.

dotThey sterilize all instrumentation for hospitals' emergency rooms, operating rooms and labor and delivery areas.

Dennis Stephenson says the job is quite a bit more complicated than it used to be. In the old days, he says, sterile processing technicians used to assemble trays with three or four instruments in them. Now, there are upwards of 200 pieces.

dotThe instruments are collected from surgical tables and brought to the sterile processing room, where a technician is ready to clean them.

"They're already pre-mixed and you just drop them in to the machine -- there's a little compartment for that container -- you just pop it in there and close the door and let it go," Stephenson says.

"Today's sterilization technology is basically automated. Almost everything is automated now. You just have to pay attention to your printouts, which give you the parameters of the machine."

dotInstrument sets are put in a steam machine called an autoclave. Tools are left in the autoclave to run through various cycles, usually three to five minutes to wash and 35 minutes to dry.

dotThere are different ways to sterilize the instruments. Ethylene oxide (ETO), steam and Steris -- a low-grade acid -- are all used. Steris is a fluid that permeates the surface of the material to be cleaned.

Sandra Galeski is the materials coordinator in the operating room at a hospital. There are five main machines in her sterile processing room: an ultrasonic machine, which breaks up microscopic debris, a washer, a heat sealer and the main autoclaves.

"It's not just a series of buttons that you have to push to operate the autoclave," she says. "There's a lot of equipment that they have to be able to run and operate."

dotGaleski says there are some basic computer skills required.

dotHelen Vandoremalen is the manager of the regional processing center at a women's health center. Where she works, there are three levels of technicians.

The first, which does not have to take a certification course, is responsible for pickup and delivery of the surgical trays. The second cleans the instruments in decontamination. And the third level works with surgeons in the operating room (these are sometimes called scrub techs).

Vandoremalen says that sterile processing technicians in the operating room need good communication skills, good problem solving skills and an even temperament to help surgeons better perform their job.

"If they want something and that thing isn't available, you can't just say, 'Oh, sorry. We don't have that.' You've got a patient on the table and they need something, so you've got to be able to think on your feet, to say, 'Well, I haven't got this, but I can give you that, and that will probably suit your needs.'"

dotThe work is often performed in tight quarters. There is lots of heavy lifting, making it difficult work for the disabled.

Stephenson says that a disabled person would still be able to contribute to a sterile processing department in some capacities, though.

At a Glance

Make sure medical instruments are properly cleaned

  • Most work in hospitals, but you'll also find them in dental clinics, optometry offices, health clinics and the food industry
  • Some basic computer skills are required
  • More and more employers are looking for certified technicians