Few industrial or commercial environments are subjected to more demanding performance specifications or challenged to maintain more stringent hygiene standards than hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, and continuing care facilities. When specifying building products and fixtures to comply with the healthcare industry’s demanding requirements and selecting equipment that enables healthcare facilities to function at an optimum level, design teams and facilities planning professionals must consider numerous factors in real time. Being able to trust in the reliability, durability, and return on investment of a specific product is paramount to allowing decision-makers to make informed product choices that stand the test of time and pay dividends for years to come. For a myriad of reasons, generations of healthcare decision makers have chosen the inherent advantages of products composed of commercial-grade stainless steel.

Stainless steel products are not only environmentally sustainable material, they also provide many functional and health benefits. Following are the top 10 reasons why stainless steel products are the best choice for healthcare design.

1. Continuously Heals Itself

Used for many industrial, architectural, chemical, and consumer applications for over half a century, stainless steel is essentially a low-carbon steel, which contains chromium at 10.5 percent or more by weight. It is this addition of chromium that gives the steel its unique stainless, corrosion-resisting, and enhanced mechanical properties. The chromium content of the steel allows the formation of a rough, adherent, invisible corrosion-resisting chromium oxide film on the steel surface. 1

If damaged mechanically or chemically, this film is self-healing, providing that oxygen, even in very small amounts, is present. 2 This is a significant point, considering that other solid surface materials are often plagued by micro cracks, typically originating where the material meets the perimeter of the drain. These small fissures, invisible to the naked eye, are perfect breeding grounds for bioload bacteria that thrive in warm wet environments. Micro cracks do not occur on self-healing stainless steel surfaces.

Composed of 18 percent chromium and 8 percent nickel, type 304 austenitic steel is sometimes referred to as 18-8 stainless, and it is nonmagnetic and cannot be hardened by heat treatment.

2. Formable into Virtually Any Shape, Size, and Type of Surface

Type 304 austenitic steels are nonmagnetic stainless steels that contain high levels of chromium and nickel and low levels of carbon. Known for their formability and ease of fabrication, type 304 stainless steel can be cut, welded, formed, machined, and fabricated as readily as traditional steels, making it highly suitable for the widest range of applications.

Composed of 18 percent chromium and 8 percent nickel, type 304 is sometimes referred to as 18-8 stainless, and it is nonmagnetic and cannot be hardened by heat treatment. There is virtually no end to the number of applications for stainless steel in a healthcare facility. From medical devices, trays, bed pans, and bedrails to chairs, tables, counter-tops, handwash sinks, scrub sinks, drinking fountains, soap dispensers, and more, stainless steel is ideal because of its versatility. 3

3. Highest Degree of Cleanliness

Stainless steel surfaces have greater hygiene value and require lower concentrations of disinfectant to achieve the level of hygiene required. 4 This is particularly important in healthcare environments, which are filled with chemical compounds such as iodine, bleach, peroxide, dyes, human tissue, blood, and bodily fluids. In fact, the efficiency of cleaning agents on stainless steel is three to four times greater than on polymers or aluminum. When properly cleaned and maintained, stainless steel surfaces reduce bioburden that can cause disease and infection.

4. Lasting Beauty, Resistance to Scratches and Stains

The bright, easily maintained surface of stainless steel provides a modern and attractive aesthetic appearance that lasts year after year. Experience has shown stainless steel to be a superior material versus polymer solid surfaces because it is highly resistant to chipping, cracking, staining, scratching, as well as overall porosity issues.

Stainless steel withstands everyday usage in heavy-use commercial environments without the need for repair. By comparison, surface materials such as polymers are prone to scratching and microscopic cracks. These surfaces must be sanded regularly to remove these imperfections and to prevent accumulation of hazardous bioload bacteria. Sanding generates airborne dust particles that can be a health hazard through inhalation, as well as creating depressions in the material that can lead to further issues over time. By comparison, stainless steel retains its original aesthetic appearance regardless of heavy usage conditions or exposure to materials that scratch and stain.

5. Unsurpassed Structural Strength and Durability

Steel is one of the strongest materials known. Compared with other types of solid surface products, stainless steel has a remarkable strength-to-weight advantage that makes it ideal for healthcare environments that rely on liquid containment and sanitary conditions. 5 Stainless steel lavatory sinks, for example, can withstand impacts and thermal extremes, making them the best choice for medical, laboratory and industrial environments.

6. Greater Impact Resistance than Other Solid Surfaces

The austenitic microstructure of type 304 stainless steel provides superior toughness, making these steels particularly suited to healthcare environments. Stainless steel is far superior to other solid surfaces used in producing medical fixtures and equipment.

7. Highly Resistant to Corrosion

The corrosion resistance and other useful properties of stainless steel are enhanced by increased nickel/chromium content and the addition of other elements such as molybdenum and nitrogen. It is essential for the healthcare design professionals to know the nature of the environment and the degree of corrosion that will be present, since the corrosive impact on surfaces is determined by exposure to chemicals and their concentration, atmospheric conditions, temperature, and time.

Generally speaking, stainless steel grades with lower alloy content resist corrosion in atmospheric and pure water environments, while higher grades can resist corrosion in most acids, alkaline solutions, and chlorine-bearing environments. Specifically, type 304 stainless steel is used extensively in healthcare environments because it resists organic chemicals, dyestuffs, and a wide variety of organic chemicals. By comparison, type 316 stainless steel, with its increased nickel content and addition of molybdenum, is desirable where the potential for severe corrosion conditions exist and pitting is to be avoided, such as in chloride environments.

8. More Hygienic and Easier to Clean than Other Solid Surfaces

The hard metallic surface of stainless steel makes it difficult for bacteria, mold, and microorganisms that can cause disease to adhere and survive. In addition, innovative die-drawn technology enables manufacturers to produce seamless products, fixtures, and other equipment that do not accumulate bacteria-filled debris or waste. Its easy cleanability makes it the first choice for strict hygiene conditions. Stainless steels — mainly type 304 — have largely replaced traditional sink materials such as vitreous china because it can be kept scrupulously clean and withstand aggressive chemicals.

In fact, the continuing safety of using stainless steel in healthcare environments has been confirmed in a new study commissioned by Team Stainless. 1 Researchers from Manchester Metropolitan University and AgroParisTech found that there was no discernible difference between the efficiency of disinfection across the range of grades and finishes, and whether or not the stainless steel was new or aged. This confirms the effectiveness of disinfecting stainless steel against bacteria associated with healthcare-acquired infections (HAIs) and its ongoing suitability as a material for use in clinical environments. 6

9. Delivers the Most Cost-Effective, Long-Term Value

When the total life cycle costs are considered, stainless is very often the least-expensive material option due to durability and low maintenance. In addition, stainless steel requires only minimal maintenance, which is both economical and good for the environment and society. Overall, due to reduced repair and maintenance costs, long-term savings can be in the range of 30–40 percent compared with alternative materials. Discerning engineers, specifiers, and designers weigh the long-term value of stainless products against the potentially higher initial costs and conclude that, over the total life of a project, stainless is typically the best value option.

10. Recyclable and Readily Available

Fig. 1 - More than 95 percent of newly milled stainless steel comes from reclaimed stainless steel scrap, thereby completing the full life cycle.

Last, but certainly not least important, stainless steel is 100 percent recyclable and readily available from domestic steel mills. In fact, more than 95 percent of newly milled stainless steel comes from reclaimed stainless steel scrap, thereby completing the full life cycle (see Figure 1). There is a well-established closed loop infrastructure in the United States, which supports the life cycle of long-lasting stainless steel. 7

The longevity of stainless is the result of the alloy composition and, therefore, it has a natural corrosion resistance. Nothing is applied to the surface that could add material to the environment.

Further reducing its environmental impact over the full life cycle is the fact that the naturally hygienic qualities of stainless steel do not require harsh cleaning chemicals that would otherwise be washed down the drain, thereby reducing long-term environmental impact. The life cycle of stainless steel products contributes to resource minimization, since new resources are not needed as often to replace corroded or failed products. When stainless steel products do eventually complete their service life, there is less concern about disposal since this material is 100 percent recyclable. 8

Conclusion

In summary, there are many good reasons why stainless steel fixtures and equipment are the best choice for high-traffic and high use installations. Stainless steel’s superior features and benefits in commercial and healthcare applications greatly reduce HAIs and surgical site infections (SSIs). Within the medical industry and overall commercial market, stainless steel is used for its high corrosion resistance, formability, strength, manufacturing precision, reliability, and hygiene, all of which combine to make stainless steel of particular importance for safe, cost-effective operations.

References

  1. Stainless Steel Features and Benefits
  2. Stainless Steel Industry of America
  3. Applications for the Protection of the Environment and Human Health
  4. Care and Cleaning of Stainless Steel Sinks
  5. Martensitic Stainless Steels
  6. New Study Confirms Continuing Safety of Stainless Steel
  7. Life Cycle Costing
  8. Recycling

This article was written by Bruce Keclik, Product Engineer for Just Manufacturing, Franklin Park, IL. For more information, visit here .


Medical Design Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the May, 2020 issue of Medical Design Briefs Magazine.

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