At this plant, every day is laundry day: 6 million pounds of clothes a year. 

Spin Cycle

Patricia Manuel is doing laundry. Lots and lots and lots of laundry. By the end of the year, Manuel and her colleagues will wash, dry and fold about 6 million pounds' worth of hospital, hotel and military linens. The 64-employee operation, tucked away in the basement of the Hunter Holmes McGuire Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Richmond's South Side, imports laundry by the truckload: cooks' whites stained with grease from Fort Lee, Army blankets dirtied at Camp Elmore in Norfolk, surgical scrubs contaminated at Hampton's Langley Air Force Base Hospital. In all, 15 government-run facilities send their laundry to McGuire, which makes about $1 million a year on the work. It's a nice, 7-year-old sideline for the hospital. But it's also a study in order, motivation and teamwork. For now, it's time to take a load of white blankets from the dryer. Behind Manuel, a white strobe light flickers; this signals the end of the computerized drying cycle. Inside one of four machines that can dry 200 pounds of laundry at a time, a steel drum a golf cart could drive through slows its spin. A small door on the rear of the dryer slides open. Room-temperature air suddenly rushes into the drum, replacing the hot air. The air pressure forces the tumbling clothes out and onto a conveyor belt below. The smells of chemicals and fabric fresheners permeate the air, mixed with the starchy scent of a hot iron against wet clothes. Manuel wraps her arms around a freshly dried pile, dumps it into a rolling plastic cart and goes back for more. "It's always something new every day," Manuel says, cheerfully. Manuel seems to have conquered what, to those outside looking in, could be considered a dreadfully dull duty. After all, this is a place where every day is laundry day. Here, dirty becomes clean in a never-ending cycle. The secret, according to Manuel, is to set goals. "It's like a test," says Manuel, a work leader who has done laundry here since 1987. And if something snags in the system - say, a piece of equipment goes down - all the better, she explains: "It's kind of exciting to see if you can do what you're supposed to do every day. I have goals constantly every day." If there's anyone who appreciates that attitude, it's Albert Boyd, the calm, affable laundry-plant manager who marvels at his staff. "It amazes people how we can get all of this done," Boyd says. "And trust me, it's not easy. It takes everybody working together." Boyd, a tall man with a mustache and an easy smile, could be Mr. Rogers' understudy. Instead of talking "efficiency ratios" and "productivity priorities," he coos about teamwork and cohesiveness. His staff bowls together every other Friday. He learned sign language to talk with two deaf employees. Boyd stumbled onto his position in 1984 when he came to McGuire to visit an uncle in the hospital's nursing home. He inquired about job openings. "You want to work in a laundry?" someone asked. He thought, Why not? and left a 14-year career in the retail grocery business. The laundry had opened in 1983, but it was in for some big changes. In 1988, McGuire and the Hampton VA Medical Center consolidated their laundry operations in Richmond. In 1993, the hospital bought $500,000 worth of new equipment, and embarked on a contract laundry business - something that had never been done in the national VA system. Eventually, the hospital won business from places like Fort Monroe, the Petersburg Prison, McDonald Hospital and Langley. Today, the business is a bragging point. It helps bring extra money into the hospital and lowers the cost of its own laundry service, says Jim Dudley, director of McGuire. While the added revenue is a sliver of the hospital's $160 million budget, Dudley says, "It is significant to us." And most of the employees realize the importance of the work, Boyd says. The 18-hour-a-day operation is at once basic and intricate. On a recent Tuesday, a truck from Langley Hospital has arrived at the laundry's dock. Bags of soiled linens are dumped into rolling carts that can hold about 400 pounds of the stuff, then sorted, tagged and piled onto a conveyor belt. And this is an immensely important stage, because the McGuire laundry has adopted what it considers the superior sorting theory: before, not after, the drying cycle. The reason? Boyd says, slowly and deliberately: "Less. Labor." It makes sense. It takes 20 minutes to dry towels, six minutes to dry sheets. Sleeping bags take longer than blankets. Separating before the wash stage allows for speed and efficiency. It also allows for more targeted cleaning. "You can control, first, what you want to wash," Boyd says. And of course, different types of items are cleaned in a variety of ways. In two washer-extractors, colored robin's-egg blue, 14 different cycles have been programmed to target mops or colored uniforms or kitchen garments or towels. Each washer can churn through 600 pounds of laundry in 90 minutes. But the real monster is the CBW, or continuous batch washer, a 30-foot-long, computer driven contraption that moves laundry through 12 steps. In the beginning, different piles of laundry, steadily moving up a conveyor belt, are given a code that tells the computer where they're from and what kind of wash they need. At the top, they fall into the entrance of a huge horizontal cylinder driven by a giant corkscrew. The corkscrew moves them from one pocket to another - 12 pockets in all - washing and soaking and freshening and sanitizing from one end to the other. Herman Sledge, a hefty 48-year-old, runs this machine. He's been in the laundry business for 29 years. At his fingertips is a computer screen full of numbers that tells him exactly what's being washed and where. "It gives me a diagram of the whole system," says Sledge. The biggest challenge is when it gets stopped up, he says. Then again, he adds, "I know what I'm doing." At the end of the CBW, the piles of wet laundry fall into a chamber that presses them into pancakelike stacks, pushing out the excess water, which drains into gutters below. Another conveyor belt moves the damp piles up a ramp and onto a robotic lift that deposits the clothes into the next available dryer, which dries them according to their preset drying times. Then the laundry is left as is - a "rough dry" - run through ironing machines, folded by hand or machine, or, in the case of uniforms, starched and pressed. And that's when the pounds of laundry suddenly become personal: a green scrub for a lifesaving surgeon, a bedsheet for an ailing hospital patient, a canteen cover for a thirsty soldier, a mop for a hardworking janitor. Boyd walks over to a long rack of crisp white short-sleeved cooks' overshirts that are headed for the quartermaster's department at Fort Lee. The people who wear these whites will be cooking in the kitchen, Boyd says, and "we want them to look kind of neat." So after three days here - one, in some cases - the newly clean linens are back on the truck, headed for home. To get dirty

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