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Unloading & Loading Techniques for your Sterilization Equipment

The Importance of Proper Loading and Unloading Practices

Successful sterilization loading, unloading and handling practices all contribute to safer outcomes for sterile processing professionals as well as the patients being taken care of. Each item placed into a steam sterilizer must be positioned in a manner that allows air to be removed, steam to penetrate the package and sufficient drying to take place. All of these steps, in conjunction with the proper cycle selection, surrounding environment and equipment functionality will determine the outcomes during sterilization practices. Only medical devices that have been validated for steam sterilization should undergo the process, this can be determined by using the device instructions from the dedicated manufacturer. Every SPD processes many different types of products and it’s important to follow specific steps.

Best Practices and Safety Protocols

Incorporating a structured and consistent method for handling sterilized items and preparing items for sterilization will help create a more efficient and safer way of processing. Some of the safety precautions to be on the lookout for include the following:


  • Always wear protective gloves and an apron when unloading the sterilizer or loading to avoid burn hazards
  • Stay clear of the door area during opening and closing of the sliding door to avoid injury, if hands or arms get stuck, this can lead to injuries or crushing, be sure to follow safe loading protocols
  • Keep an appropriate distance of at least 1 inch from the chamber walls of the sterilizer when loading items on a rack
  • Make sure all items are securely placed, and cannot slip or blow out of their proper placement
  • If items are to be stacked in the sterilizer, make sure the containment method being used is approved for such loading practices
  • If your sterilizer racks are adjustable, make sure to follow the support grid instructions for movement, and only do so when the racks have been allowed to cool
  • Make sure the batch carts are locked in place anytime they are not being used, during loading, during sterilizing, and anytime the machine is running to avoid injuries or dropped items
  • If your sterilizer rack has a docking lever, always make sure to lock the batch cart to the autoclave before maneuvering materials, or moving the racks from the batch cart
  • Make sure all items are properly cleaned, and dried before placing them on the sterilization rack
  • Follow all recommendations found in the sterilizer manual for weight capacity of the load itself, and variety of items being processed
  • Avoid excessively heavy loading, and follow best practices and AAMI recommending guidelines for proper placement protocols, as well as your operator’s manuals
  • Lastly, use only approved packaging materials by both the FDA as well as the operator’s manual as approved for the device and sterilizer
  • Load items in a flat position, allowing for steam penetration and adequate air removal during the drying process
  • An absorbent liner can be used for lining the sterilization shelf, and can help to absorb moisture that might otherwise drop onto items on the shelf below

Incorporating a Sterilization "Time Out"

When staff are preparing the loads for sterilization, there are a great deal of steps to remember; from prepping, to scanning and of course all of the requirements involved with documentation and monitoring steps. A great way to help your team members stay attentive of their steps is to incorporate a sterilization “TIME OUT”, similar to a Surgical Time Out that occurs in the operating suite. When performed in the surgical suite, everyone in the room must stop what they are doing to acknowledge the person who is speaking, for sterilization, a TIME OUT is a structured, checks and balances type practice that involves auditing each step, and helps to eliminate the potential for fault. It can include a few key reminders along the way, like checking for indicators, checking all filter placement, and checking to make sure every items has a tamper evident seal. These simple, but key reminder steps can be completed before the cycle selection starts and help to streamline your processes during training.