Safe, Sustainable and Secluded

Central laundry for Canadian oil worker lodges demands quality, while also embracing safety and ‘green’ practices

Located about 45 minutes north of Ft. McMurray in upper Alberta, Canada, winter temperatures at the Civeo Laundry Services plant routinely drop to nearly -40° F. But processing a daily average of 40,000 lbs. of bed and bath linens in harsh weather conditions is only one factor that makes this facility stand out from most commercial or institutional laundries on either side of the U.S./Canadian border.

Another is the fact that employees, including General Manager Jamie Friess and Assistant Manager Paul Lewis, live and work on-site for 19 days straight, before getting a five- or six-day “vacation” period year-round. These long stretches away from home make the Civeo staff a bit like a big family, says Friess. He likens the experience to episodes of the TV sitcom Cheers! in which characters such as Norm and Cliff stop off at a local bar for a nightly beer with the “regulars.” But no matter how you look at it, Civeo operates in a unique environment. 

“There is a real disconnect from reality when you’re here for 19 days,” Friess says. “We are actually here on site more than we’re home throughout the year. So the day-to-day life of a normal ‘five-and-two’ worker doesn’t exist for us anymore. This is more our life up here. We work our 19 days and we go home. It’s a vacation every time we go home. Whereas a five-and-two person, they go home every night and have dinner. On the weekends, they are cutting their grass or weed-whacking, or going to the lake. On weekends they’re doing that; we’re coming here.”

'Stay Well. Work Well'

An employee feeds towels into a small-piece folder.

Another distinctive feature about Civeo Laundry Services is its robust commitment to safety, as affirmed by the company’s catchphrase, which is shown in the header above. Civeo Corp., the laundry’s Houston-based parent company, also operates a nearby water treatment plant and various lodges in the oil sands region. Safety, says Friess, is a key element of Civeo’s business model. The focus on incident prevention reflects the company’s desire not only to protect employees, but to ensure its competitiveness. “They keep a closer eye on safety than they do anything else,” he says. “There are stringent safety rules here that we have to adhere to, and the only way for us to do that is education, learning and working with our staff to get this place to where we can say, ‘Yes, we have the safest laundry in North America.’” Lewis, the assistant manager, adds that companies seeking outsource services have high expectations for safety. “A lot of companies up here and our third parties, they are very safety driven,” he says. “If they don’t have their safety stats in line, they’re not going to win contracts.” 

Civeo’s safety strategy includes extensive employee input, coupled with methodologies designed to maximize the impact of best practices for incident prevention. The 37,800-square-foot plant itself also is equipped with numerous “stop” buttons on machines and safety-monitoring equipment designed to enable employees to prevent mishaps before they occur. 

Slings of clean goods await processing.

A large number of employees participate on the plant safety committee, Friess says. 

One of their routine tasks is selecting various pieces of equipment and reviewing safety-related aspects of its operation with an eye toward continuous improvement. “We have job-hazard assessments that they’re involved in where they assess one piece of machinery and all the aspects of it to cope with all the possible hazards,” Lewis says. “And then we work together to mitigate them. From those job-hazard analyses, we create safe work practices (SWPs), which we then review with the staff and tweak them.” 

Friess notes that Civeo also convenes 30-minute weekly meetings of plant personnel to consider SWPs. In these sessions, employees and managers consider changes to daily work practices. “We have a half an hour, once a week. If we find that there’s a better way of doing things…such as a better way to feed the ironer, we will update the SWP. We will represent it out to all of them. Everybody will sign off on it. It goes in our SWP book.” 

A related tactic is a “daily toolbox” meeting in which employees help size up potential operating hazards in the plant. “We also do something called FLRA’s, which are called Field Level Risk Assessments,” says Lewis. “That’s when we talk about hazards and you give a task, say if you’re feeding towels, what are the hazards? Well, it’s moving belts and long standing. What are your fixes for that? Awareness of the moving belts and stretching for the long (periods of ) standing.” As with the SWPs, if a consensus emerges for improving any aspect of a work task under discussion, the staff can implement changes. 

An employee moves goods from a folder/ stacker to a conveyor for movement to packout.

In another “best practice” safety precaution, staff regularly move to different jobs to reduce the likelihood of repetitive-stress injuries, Friess says. “All staff on the floor rotate every two hours,” he says. “By rotating, they’re doing different tasks throughout the day, whereas in a lot of conventional laundries if they don’t rotate, one person could be on a towel folder for one whole shift. Here we do multitasking. Everybody is trained on all the areas of the finishing side of things so that they’re rotating every two hours, which, as we know, the highest injury rates in laundries is your musculoskeletal injuries, and we don’t have those here with them rotating. Every different job you use different muscles.” 

While summer heat poses less of a problem for staff here than in much of the U.S. (a hot day seldom exceeds 84°-86° F), Civeo nonetheless takes extra precautions to protect its employees from heat-related illness. First, the plant is air conditioned, with “air drops” located near every machine. Second, staff are encouraged to stay well hydrated throughout their shifts. Third, employees working in hot areas get extra rotations to avoid unnecessary heat exposure. “On really hot days, we’ll even rotate the people who are at the ironer within their two-hour shift so that they get to get away from it,” Lewis says. “You don’t want to be at the back of the machine feeding all the hot sheets for two hours, so we rotate them.”

Friess notes that these and other precautions are paying off by driving down Civeo’s injury rate. “Compared to most laundries, I would say that our musculoskeletal and strain injuries are very low” he says. “Our workers’ morale is good.” Nonetheless, the company gets additional feedback through an annual, third-party safety audit of its operations. “We have a core audit,” he says. “It’s an internal thing. A third party comes in to review procedures and conditions.” When asked if the visits are helpful, he answers, “Absolutely.” 

This computer console gives operators an overall view of the wash floor, including dryers, washers and the shuttle system.

Efficient, Eco-Friendly Quality

A brief walk-through of this plant that opened in September 2014 confirmed Civeo’s commitment to safety. It also underscored its focus on sustainable efficiency, based on a design that reflects the unique environment in which Civeo operates. This includes relying on a company-owned water-treatment facility near the plant for its water and using propane fuel to run the laundry, since natural gas isn’t available in this sparsely populated area.

Our tour begins in the soil area. There, an E-Tech Inc. cart dumper is used to empty incoming soiled flatwork from roughly 25,000 beds in 21 resort-style lodges operated by Civeo to house oil workers. Plant employees, including managers, also live in these modest but comfortable suites, although in separate wings from hourly staff, Fries says. 

In the sorting area, goods are separated by the individual lodge. “We do one lodge at a time,” Lewis says, noting that there are three stop buttons that employees can push to halt the movement of goods for safety reasons. The E-Tech sorting area includes 12 bays for individual items such as top sheets, terry towels, bottom sheets, wash cloths and other flatwork items. Sorted goods drop into slings that then move to a shuttle system that transports them to an automated wash aisle featuring a series of G.A. Braun Inc. washer/extractors. 

A view of a water reuse storage tank with a shaker screen in the boiler room.

Civeo has two 125 lb. pony washers from B&C Technologies for small lots and rewash items. “We use them for the small camps,” Friess says. The main wash aisle, including shuttles, washer/extractors and dryers is all Braun equipment. The area is surrounded by chain-link fencing to keep unauthorized people away from moving equipment. If any of the plant’s 47 employees enter the area when machinery is moving, it will shut down automatically. Managers can track the movement of goods from the shuttles, washer/extractors and dryers using a computer terminal provided by Braun. 

Employees here work two, staggered 10-hour shifts. Business slows a bit insummer due to employee vacations, but the plant “runs full bore” in winter,” Friess says. The quantities of goods tend to fluctuate, based on the oil companies’ need for employee housing. “We never know what’s going to come through our door to be honest,” he says.

The wash aisle includes four 450 lb. and two 650 lb. washer/extractors. Diversey provides washroom chemicals for the plant. On the clean side of the facility, Civeo has four 500 lb. Braun pass-through dryers. The plant has “total separation” of soil and clean goods, including a wall and negative air flow, Friess says. “We have white bags for the clean; blue bags for the soil.” After drying, the shuttle moves goods into slings that carry the textiles to the finishing area. As an added precaution, when goods are moving via shuttle to a washer/extractor, a computer voice announces, “Shuttle No. 1 is moving to washer No. 7.” 

GM Jamie Friess and Asst. Mgr. Paul Lewis describe a computer-tracking system in the wash area.

Before heading to the finishing side, Friess, Lewis and Jim Corrigan, West Coast reginal vice president for Braun, stop to show us fixtures on a wall adjacent to the wash aisle that helps explain how the plant maximizes both efficiency and sustainability. Here are grey-colored boxes with tubes that deliver a dose of ozone during each wash cycle. The ozone system, provided by BluOx, a supplier based in Atlanta, breaks down soil in the water, thus facilitating reuse and reducing the need for conventional wash chemicals, Friess says. An alarm will sound if any ozone should “off gas” from the equipment, but the system has performed well. “We’ve really had no issues with our ozone injector,” he says. “Each machine has its own generator.” Civeo is pleased with the results as well. For example, the ozone-injection system has eliminated the need for bleach and reduced the need for alkali. Textiles come out clean with no chlorine smell, and they wear better with reduced environmental impact. “We’re getting 20% longer life out of our linen,” Friess says. And since the ozone dissipates naturally after treating the water, there’s no pollution issue. “We’re not putting harmful chemicals into the sewer system.”

A Civeo tractor-trailer is parked at the loading dock.

Corrigan, who worked with BluOx in designing the wash aisle system, along with “design build” developer ARCO/Murray, says the project was unusual, but the results are outstanding. Friess adds that the ozone—coupled with water-filtering equipment from Thermal Engineering of Arizona (TEA)—has enhanced the efficiency of the washer/extractors. They currently are processing .05-.07 gallons per lb. “We had to be able to get that water down, so when we talked about ozone, they were already using ozone in their other plant, and they were happy with it,” Corrigan says. “It was working well. So we said, ‘That’s the answer.’ We’ll just go with ozone on a bigger format. And for us, me personally, I’ve never done a laundry of this size (using ozone), but it’s worked out real well.” Lewis says water from the rinse cycles is reused, with an estimated 30%-35% savings. These steps are criti-cal in terms of conserving resources and controlling costs.

One question we asked is that given the volume of goods that the plant pro-cesses, why didn’t the design include a tunnel washer or a combination tunnel and washer/extractors? Friess respond-ed that, “We probably could have done both (tunnel and washer/extractors), but we’d probably have to have anoth-er 20,000 square feet onto the building because now you also have to make sure that with your tunnel you take a differ-ent shuttle than what we have here. So you would have two operating (shuttles) in the same building. So you would al-most have to have another 20,000 feet on there because you have to have a separate track and dryers for your tunnel.”

Recruiting—No Trouble at All

One might think that getting employees to work full-time in a laundry in a remote area of northern Alberta for 20 days at a stretch would pose recruiting challenges. In fact, General Manager Jamie Friess of Civeo Laundry Services, north of Fort McMurray, says it’s just the opposite—people want the jobs that Civeo offers because the pay is attractive. Moreover, most living expenses are covered since employees live “on campus” in the same Civeo-managed resort-style lodges where oil company employees are housed and fed.

The Civeo workforce includes a number of immigrants, but all of the employees here are Canadian citizens, Friess says. “I think the word gets out,” says Paul Lewis, assistant manager at the Civeo plant. “If you get hired by Civeo working in the oil sands, it’s like winning the lottery. These people walk in off the streets and they’re making good wages to take sheets and put them in a machine.”

Friess adds that Civeo has to pay well in order to get qualified employees who don’t mind being away from home 20 days at a time. “We have to be competitive with our wages to make sure that we keep senior staff employed is what it basically boils down to,” he says. “Twenty days and they live right across the street and they go home for 10.” In an unusual situation for laundry employees, Civeo staff sleep at night on the same sheets that they’re processing during the day. The same goes for towels.

On occasions when problems come up with employees, Civeo has an “open-door” policy that’s designed to resolve disputes quickly and fairly. Staff can be disciplined if needed, but clear communication usually is sufficient to resolve conflicts. “We have an open dialogue with all our staff to where they come into our office and talk to us about stuff anytime they want,” Friess says. “You know what, whether it’s this laundry or any other laundry in North America, you’re always going to have your issues. It’s how you choose to work through those to get a positive outcome. That’s what you want.”

Another reason Civeo went with all washer/extractors was the need for equipment redundancy. Having one of several machines go down wouldn’t slow things up much, but tunnel trouble—with a plant located in a relatively remote area with the prospect of limited access in winter—could disrupt production sig-nificantly, he says.

Moving to the finishing side, we saw a range of Braun equipment: Two iron-er lines, each with spreader/feeders and folders, mainly for sheets. There also were two blanket folders and four small-piece folders. In the boiler room we saw a TEA shaker screen for removing lint and other waste particles from the wa-ter, plus two CFM air compressors and a small Parker boiler. The plant is “virtual-ly steamless” because, due to the ozone, the washer/extractors don’t require hot water, Friess says. However, steam is Textile SERVICES § February 2016injected in the final rinse for flat goods to raise the temperature, thereby making it easier to run them through the ironer. 

While safety and sustainability are critical to Civeo, the company is equally committed to high quality in a cost-effective production environment. The company doesn’t view these goals as mutually exclusive, i.e., they can and must coexist. “The ozone keeps it soft,” Friess says, holding up a white towel. “It’s a work camp, but they’re really soft. There’s no muddy soil smell.” 

Oil Biz Ups & Downs

Like any commercial launderer, Civeo depends on its customer base—in its case the oil companies operating in the oil sands region of Alberta—for its livelihood. With oil currently selling internationally for less than $31 a barrel, low prices have hurt the oil-exploration market across North America. That doesn’t necessarily mean a halt to operations. Technology on both sides of the border is advancing to lower production costs so that companies can still sell their oil profitably. At the moment, Friess says the net effect for him is a stable but slow-growing market for his company’s laundry services. One prominent oil company in the region recently shelved $200 million in new projects, he says. Others are likely to put their plans on hold as well. Civeo, of course, can’t control these decisions. 

Approval of the Keystone pipeline from Northern Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast would surely help the region’s oil industry. But approval by U.S. officials (and since the recent parliamentary elections, perhaps the Canadian government as well) is by no means assured. In any case, that decision is in the hands of policymakers of both countries—not Civeo. 

Cold Weather Response: Dryer Air Heat Transfer

One way the Civeo Laundry Services staff seek to minimize the impact of harsh winters in northern Alberta is through a coaxial duct system that uses heat transfer to warm up incoming air for the dryers. General Manager Jamie Friess says the plant was constructed with two-way ducts that allow warm air that’s exiting the dryers to run along side cold air that’s coming into the dryers from outside. The outgoing warm air raises the temperature of the incoming air, thus saving energy and helping to limit dry times.

In the meantime, Friess and Lewis must focus on the task at hand. Their view is that Western countries like Canada and the U.S. are hungry for domestic energy development and the jobs that go with it. Civeo’s challenge is to ensure high-quality laundry processing in a safe, sustainable and cost-effective plant. They’re too busy with that to dwell much on the vicissitudes of the oil business. 

“It’s something we here have no control over,” Friess says. “When you look at the price of oil, that has an effect on us sometimes. But realistically, at the end of the day you still have your base rooms because people are still running their plants. It’s more in our opinion capital projects that are being nipped. And some downsizing has been done. But we still need people to run the different plants. When you have people running the plants, it’s ‘heads in beds,’ which means that it’s business for us.” 

JACK MORGAN is senior editor of Textile Services. Contact him at 877.770.9274 or

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