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a. The principles of sterile technique are applied in various ways. In the following paragraphs, the principles of sterile technique and examples of their application are discussed. When the OR specialist understands the principles, he should be aware of other examples of their application.

b. All materials used as a part of the sterile field for an operation must be sterile. Certain basic items (such as the linen, the instrument set, and the basins) may be obtained from the supply kept in the sterile supply room. Others, such as specialized surgical instruments, may be sterilized the night before or immediately preceding the operation and taken directly from the sterilizer to the sterile operative field. Once an item is removed from a sterile wrapper, it must be used or discarded.

(1) Linen used in the operating room is usually dyed green. This helps to reduce the glare from lights, thus reducing fatigue and eyestrain.

(2) Linen selected for use in the operating room should be checked to ensure that the linen is not torn or frayed and that no holes are present in the cloth. Likewise, it should be handled gently to prevent lint and dust from being spread about the room.

(3) Only materials known to be sterile should be used and their sterility should be maintained throughout the operative procedure.

(4) Sterile areas are set up just prior to use.

(5) Scrub attire should not be worn outside the surgical suite.

(6) All team members should wash hands before and after the care of each patient.

c. Items should be considered unsterile if there is doubt about their sterility.

(1) If a sterile-appearing package is found in an area not designated for sterile storage, it is considered unsterile and must be reprocessed and re-sterilized.

(2) If there is doubt about the timing of a sterilizer, its contents are considered unsterile.

(3) If an "unsterile" person brushes close to a sterile table, the table is considered contaminated. Also, if a "sterile" person brushes close to an unsterile table, the person's sterile gown is considered contaminated.

(4) If a sterile table or sterile items are left unmonitored, the table and items are considered unsterile.

(5) Do not drop or place clean supplies on the floor. Do not drop or place used supplies or soiled linen on the floor.

d. Only the top surface of a draped table is considered sterile. Anything extending over the edge or hanging over the edge is not sterile.

(1) Linen or sutures falling over the edge of the table should be discarded. The scrub should not touch the part hanging below the table level.

(2) When the scrub drapes a table with sterile linen, he should see that the part of the linen that drops below the table's surface is not brought up to table level again.

e. Once again, neither the circulator nor the scrub may intrude upon the other's area at any time, although it is very important that they consult with each other and that each is aware of what the other is doing. The duties performed by the scrub and by the circulator are governed by specific procedural rules. Persons who are "sterile" touch only sterile articles; "unsterile" persons touch only unsterile items. All supplies for the "sterile" team members (scrub, surgeon, and assistants) are provided by the circulator ("unsterile" team member) who protects the sterility of items through the use of the wrappers on sterile packages (see Figure 1-1). These procedures are described in paragraphs f and g below.

NOTE: In Figure 1-1, observe how the circulator handles the sterile wrapper and the distance he stands from the sterile field.

f. The scrub is considered a "sterile" person.

(1) The "sterile" personnel gowns and gloves without touching the outside of the gown or gloves with his bare hands.

(a) If a "sterile" team member's glove is punctured during an operation, the glove is to be changed at once.

(b) If the glove is pricked by a needle or an instrument, the needle or instrument is discarded from the sterile field. Notify the circulator of the needle's whereabouts.

(2) The parts of a surgical gown (see Figures 1-2 and 1-3) considered sterile are the sleeves (except for the axillary area) and the front of the gown from table level to a few inches below the neck opening.

(3) The scrub sets basins or glasses to be filled at the edge of the sterile table opposite where he stands. The circulator stands near the edge of the table to fill them.

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Figure 1-1. Scrub reaching for sterile supplies

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Figure 1-2. Scrub attire (front view).

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Figure 1-3. Scrub attire (back view).

(4) A "sterile" team member turns away from the sterile field to have perspiration mopped from his brow.

(5) The scrub drapes the part of an unsterile table nearest himself first.

(6) A "sterile" person should keep his hands in sight and at waist level or above.

(7) A "sterile" person should keep his hands away from his face and his elbows close to his sides. He should never fold his arms because his gown may be moist with perspiration in the axillary (under arms) region; thus, his gloves would become contaminated. When a "sterile" person stands on a footstool, the lower part of his gown should not brush the sterile table. (Common sense determines sterile parts of a gown worn by tall and short members in relation to their waists and the tops of sterile tables.)

(8) "Sterile" team members should keep their contact with sterile areas to a minimum.

(a) "Sterile" team members should not lean on the sterile tables or on the draped patient.

(b) The scrub should keep the large instrument table (back table) and the Mayo stand far enough away that the gowns of other "sterile" team members do not brush them.

(9) "Sterile" team members keep well within the sterile area. The scrub should allow a wide margin of safety when passing unsterile areas. He and all other "sterile" team members should observe the following practices.

(a) "Sterile" team members should stand back at a safe distance from the operating table while draping the patient.

(b) "Sterile" team members should pass each other back to back.

(c) A "sterile" team member should turn his back to an "unsterile" person or area when passing.

(d) A "sterile" team member should face a sterile area when passing.

(e) "Sterile" team members should stay near the sterile table. They should not wander about the room nor go out into the corridor.

(f) When used items or soiled sponges are placed into a basin and maintained on the sterile field, the inside of the basin is contaminated. Handle such a basin by the outside only.

g. The circulator is considered the "unsterile" member of the surgical team.

(1) An "unsterile" team member should never crowd past a "sterile" team member or field. Allow sufficient space between you and the sterile field or between you and gowned individuals when passing them.

(a) "Unsterile" team members should keep away from sterile areas. "Unsterile" persons should allow a wide margin of safety when passing sterile areas.

(b) "Unsterile" persons should face a sterile area when passing it to be sure you have not touched it.

(c) In addition, "unsterile" persons should not go within the sterile "circle" or between two sterile fields.

(d) When passing behind a gowned team member, always notify him to avoid possible contamination of his sterile attire if he should turn or move back and brush you.

(2) The circulator stands at a safe distance from the sterile field when adjusting the light over it.

(a) Never reach across a sterile field. Stand outside the sterile field and hold the extra supplies needed; allow the scrub to reach for them. Do not enter the sterile field to perform any duties.

(b) When moving a sterile table, grasp the table legs well below the tabletop and underneath the sterile drapes.

(c) The circulator "flips" the sterile suture material onto back table (see Figure 1-4).

h. The edge of a cover that encloses sterile contents is not considered sterile. Such covers include the edges of wrappers on sterile packages, the caps on solution bottles, and test tube covers. No definite line separates the sterile from the unsterile area at the edge of the cover; therefore, the edge is considered unsterile.

(1) The scrub should lift contents from packages by reaching for them with the arm straight out and lifting the items straight up -- with the elbow held high throughout the procedure.

(2) The circulator lifts the cap from a solution bottle so that the edge of the cap never touches the lip. Caps are not replaced. The entire contents are dispensed and any excess solution is discarded.


Figure 1-4. Circulating nurse "flipping" sterile suture material from a suture packet onto the back table.

i. Sterile areas should be protected from moisture because a moist item may become contaminated. When moisture soaks through a sterile area to an unsterile one, or vice versa, a means of transporting infectious organisms to the sterile area is provided. Therefore, the OR specialist should observe the following rules of practice.

(1) Sterile packages should be laid on dry areas.

(2) If any portion of a sterile package becomes damp or wet, the entire package should be discarded.

(3) If a sterile package falls on the floor, it is considered unsterile.

(4) Linen packages from the sterilizer should be permitted to cool before being stored on shelves. This procedure prevents their becoming damp from steam condensation when placed on a cool shelf.

(5) Sterile drapes should be placed on a dry surface. (Thus, time should be allowed for the prep solution used to paint the patient's skin to dry before draping is begun.)

(6) During surgery, if a solution soaks through a sterile area from an unsterile one or through an unsterile area from a sterile one, the wet area should be covered with another sterile drape.

j. Whenever microorganisms cannot be eliminated from a field, they should be kept to an absolute minimum. Although absolute asepsis in an operative field cannot be reached, every effort is made to control sources of possible contamination.

(1) Skin cannot be sterilized. Skin normally harbors staphylococcus and other organisms; however, any agent capable of sterilizing skin will also destroy it. The skin of the patient, as well as that of members of the "sterile" team, is therefore a potential source of contamination in every operation. However, this does not remove the need for strict aseptic technique. Defenses within the patient's body will usually overcome the relatively few organisms left on the skin when the following protective measures are carried out.

(a) The patient's skin is given a shave and scrub just prior to surgery and is again thoroughly cleansed in the operating room just prior to the incision.

(b) As much of the operative area is cleansed as is feasible and the surrounding skin is scrubbed.

(c) Some areas cannot be scrubbed vigorously. Mucous membranes are gently prepped since scrubbing would damage the tissue. When the site of operation is the mucous membrane of the nose, mouth, throat, or anus, the number of microorganisms present is great. However, these parts of the body do not usually become infected by organisms that normally inhabit them.

(d) When scrubbing the patient's skin, a sponge is used only once for prepping an area. Once the sponge is removed from contact with the skin, the sponge is discarded into a kick bucket.

(e) All of the patient's skin area except the site of incision is covered with sterile drapes.

(f) Sterile towels or other sterile material may be used to cover the skin after the incision is made. The reason for this additional precaution is to protect the surgical wound from the waste products continually excreted by the skin. In addition, airborne organisms continuously pose a threat of contaminating the incision.

(g) When the knife used for the skin incision is no longer needed, the scrub isolates it from other items on the sterile field.

(h) The skin of operating room personnel is another source of contamination. They follow rigid steps in scrubbing their hands and arms using brushes and detergents and adhering to strict technique. This is done to remove the maximum number of organisms. When drying their hands, sterile hand towels should not touch their scrub clothes.

(2) The cap worn on the head of team members should completely cover the hair to prevent particles of dandruff or hair from falling on the sterile field or in the room.

(3) Infected areas are grossly contaminated. All team members should avoid scattering the contamination.

(4) The air is usually contaminated by dust and droplets.

(a) Team members are required to wear a mask covering the nose and mouth during an operative procedure. The mask must cover the mouth and nose entirely and be tied securely to prevent venting. The strings should not be crossed when tied because the sides of the mask will gap. A pliable metal strip is inserted in the top hem of most masks to provide a firm contour fit over the bridge of the nose. This strip also helps prevent fogging of eyeglasses. Air should pass only through the filtering system of the mask. Masks should be either on or off. They should not be saved from one operation to the next by allowing them to hang around the neck or by tucking them into a pocket. Bacteria that have been filtered by the mask will become dry and airborne if the mask is worn necklace fashion. By touching only the strings when removing the mask, contamination of the hands will be reduced. Masks should be changed between procedures and sometimes during a procedure, depending on the length of the operation and the amount of talking done by the surgical team.

(b) When possible, the respiratory tract of the patient should be isolated from the incision. In some cases, isolation is achieved by using the anesthesia screen. This serves as a barrier between the incision and the respiratory tract.

(c) Team members should not talk except when essential. Silence is even better than masking to reduce the number of organisms spread from nose and throat.

(d) Team members should avoid sneezing and coughing.

(e) Persons who have colds or any active infection should be excluded from the operating room.

(f) Main corridors are considered to be contaminated areas; therefore, doors from corridors into the operating rooms should be kept closed. Also, sterile items without wrappers should not be carried through corridors.

(g) Walking through and around the operating room should be kept to the necessary minimum.

(h) All dusting should be damp-dusting with a germicide solution. Floors should be wet-vacuumed between cases as well as at the end of the day. Dry-dusting and dry-mopping should be avoided in the operating room since the dust created by these methods would continue to settle or float in the room for hours.

(i) The bedclothes over the patient should be handled gently when he is being transferred to the operating table in order to avoid throwing lint off into the air. Local policy may require bedclothes to be removed/replaced prior to the entry in the operating room; nevertheless, the patient should be covered with a cover sheet at all times.

(j) Dressings removed from a wound should be placed at once in a bag and the bag should be closed and discarded. Drainage that is left exposed to the air may become dried, thus enabling the infectious organisms in it to become airborne and be carried to other parts of the surgical suite and the hospital to infect others.

Primary Content Providers:  The U. S. Army, The U.S. Navy
Ancillary Content and Online Version: David L. Heiserman
Publisher: SweetHaven Publishing Services

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