For many years now, there has been a strong focus in the UK to improve the health and safety of employees, and it has been encouraging to see a rise in the uptake of providing clean and safe work environments. The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it new challenges of keeping workspaces safe, and while all industries have had to endure an extremely difficult period, one positive is that we will be better prepared for such occurrences in the future.
The pharmaceutical industry is renowned for having strict hygiene and cleanliness requirements, and the pandemic has only heightened the need to maintain such a high level of health and safety in the sector, especially with the production of consumable synthetic and organic substances.
Falling short of undertaking the appropriate cleaning, as well as failing to combat dust in hard-to-reach areas, will almost definitely affect product quality, while also running a high risk of contamination. In such instances, consumers could face potentially fatal consequences in the event of an extreme allergic reaction.
Inadequate cleaning regimes can also cause the workers themselves to be exposed to fine dusts that can result in inflammation of the airways. Inhalation of dust can also develop into serious infections such as bronchitis and other long-term illnesses, while an overexposure for an extensive period can also cause permanent disabilities, and even death.
Prevalent in pharmaceutical facilities, standard cleanrooms already offer a high level of protection to both workers and the products they produce, but can more be done? In short, yes.
While being aware and attempting to address areas that need to be thoroughly cleaned and maintained regularly, many pharmaceutical businesses are using up a considerable amount of time, money, and resources to meet stringent hygiene requirements. It can become a never-ending snowball effect, as not having the correct equipment to effectively capture dust both where and when it's created can lead to an accumulation – which in turn will naturally increase the time and money required to tackle it.
Centralised vacuum systems, which can be tailored to fit a client's requirements, ensure clean products are ready for delivery to the next stage in the manufacturing process by eliminating dust, liquid, or smoke at the source, and can also be used for efficient general cleaning.
Imagine a cleanroom with an outlet in the wall which could be closed with a flap valve or shutter that connects to a piped system – it would extract dust or other harmful material out of the room without risk of contamination. A hose is fitted to the outlet avoiding the need for mobile vacuum equipment to be transported in and out the room, which would result in an increase in cleaning costs and contamination risk. It is important that the hose offers flexibility, being tough enough to withstand the abrasion created when transporting any extracted material. Considerations should also be given to chemical and heat resistance as well as conductivity to static electricity.
Cleaning tools, suction casings and special nozzles are the components that capture the contaminant. The design and effectiveness of these will determine the efficiency and acceptance of the entire system. Such a comprehensive offering demands a varied and complete assortment of specially designed products. The spring-loaded flap valves that connect to the centralised vacuum system in a pharmaceutical cleanroom need to meet the requirements for cleanroom applications. The valve body is typically antistatic whilst the exposed surfaces of the valve are brushed stainless steel of hygienic design, and specially developed for the industry. Inductive sensors provide automatic start/stop functionality.
The system itself can be controlled by system control panels that operate both the vacuum producers and cleaning of the filter. Many other control functions can be installed as required and intelligent features can be implemented too, such as the control of the motor speed according to the number of users, which can reduce energy consumption.
In this COVID-19 landscape we continue to endure, it is also essential to consider adding high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration to the centralised vacuum system to contain and remove coronavirus particles. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control suggests placing HEPA filters over vents and exhausts in workspaces to reduce the spread of the virus by capturing and removing it from the room. HEPA-13 filtration has been tested to capture at least 99.95 per cent of particles between 0.15 to 0.3 micrometres.
Most pharmaceutical companies will have clientele consisting of healthcare service providers and professionals, such as doctors, pharmacies, hospitals, healthcare centres, clinics, and laboratories. To ensure a high level of cleanliness on both surfaces and in the air, the company would need an effective suction system to ensure the quality and capacity of its production, as well as to improve the health of its workers.
A central vacuum system along with piping and accessories could be installed to help the business reach and sustain its high level of cleanliness through the system's efficiency, reliability in service, and longevity, providing a superior total economic solution.
It is also important to note that while centralised vacuum systems are the most effective way of guaranteeing ultimate cleanliness in pharmaceutical cleanrooms, mobile vacuum equipment can also be utilised.
While they are a secondary option to centralised vacuum systems due to the risk of contamination when transporting the equipment in and out of the area – unless they permanently stay in the room – there are products on the market that are suited to the sector's stringent requirements of cleanliness.
For example, stainless steel industrial vacuums that are cyclone-based with HEPA-13 filtration are an ideal solution for ATEX Zone 22 settings and the high hygienic demands within the pharmaceutical and food industries. Having a high resistance to acids, with its stainless-steel design enabling use of alkaline wash solutions, and a brushless motor, this specialist equipment is suitable for operation in environments with potentially combustible dust.
In addition to industrial mobile vacuums, there are other solutions available that have been specifically designed to provide a comprehensive range of accessories and fixed equipment, that are all built to high standards.
Accessories such as flap valves, suction brushes, flat nozzles, hose connectors, full stainless tubing system, joints, pre-separator, automatic shutter valves, and stainless-steel filter units, offer increased safety, hygiene, and cost-efficiency in production. These accessories are typically antistatic and ESD certified, which means they can also be used in ATEX Zone 22, where dust explosions can occur. The brushes and nozzles are also approved for surface contact with pharmaceutical products and the system for pharmaceutical transport, being both FDA compliant and the European equivalent. In addition, their material composition makes them detectable via metal detector as well as being autoclavable up to 121 degrees Celsius, allowing for high-pressure saturated steam cleaning. Ultimately, they combine to provide a flexible system where all parts are approved for contact with the compounds being developed and produced.
Overall, with companies spending a considerable amount of time and money on cleaning, it pays to make sure they're doing it right. Due to the stringent hygiene protocols of developing and producing drugs and other medications, cleaning must be of the highest quality to remove dust and airborne virus particles, which in turn avoids the contamination of products and being inhaled by workers.
Streamlining cleaning processes and using the optimum equipment ensures that those in the pharmaceutical industry can operate with the reassurance that their product is of the highest standard, and their workers are safe from dangers of dust onsite.