Celebrating 60th Anniversary of VA Environmental Management Programs

 

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Ever since the 1850s, when Florence Nightingale saved the lives of countless Crimean War soldiers through use of soap and water, and other healthy practices, science and society have come to equate cleanliness with godliness–and for good reason. In the 1870s germ theory evolved out of numerous scientific studies which proved that germs caused diseases, heat (pasteurization) killed microbes, and sterile surgical techniques saved lives.  These were new theories, at the time, so it took many more studies and years of practice to prove their validity and infiltrate them into American culture. Consensus slowly grew during the Victorian period for adopting new cleaning practices; women became the purveyors of cleaning in the home and government often led the charge for sanitary practices outside of the home.  Promoting cleanliness in the public realm fell to the new fields of public health and sanitation.  New York City established a department of street cleaning in 1881 that, over time, became the Department of Sanitation covering a wide range of functions by 1930. Clean practices, borne out of germ theory, was slow to take hold with the public at-large.

When VHA’s ancestor, the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, first opened its doors to veterans in the fall of 1866, there was no housekeeping, sterile processes, or sanitation department in place. Veterans living at the home were required to bathe at least once a week, but very little mention of cleaning, otherwise, was mentioned in official reports.  For the first 20 years, the washing of thousands of bed linens, employee and veteran uniforms, and cleaning of other items fell under the realm of the Home’s matron, who put able-bodied veterans to work assisting her. Veterans who lived at the National Homes were paid small amounts to help with laundry, farming, fixing food, keeping the grounds neat, clean, mowed, etc. In 1871, the laundry facilities at the Central Branch home in Dayton (now Dayton VAMC) were located in a farmhouse that eventually burned to the ground.  By 1887, the Dayton reported spending $88,566.07 for “hall cleaners, laundrymen, gas-makers, and privy-watchmen” and by the 1890s, huge laundry facilities were located at each National Home.  As the Civil War veteran population aged, civilian staff were hired to do the work.

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VHA’s World War I predecessors, the Public Health Service and Bureau of War Risk Insurance, took cleanliness in hospitals very seriously. Public Health Service had an Industrial Hygiene and Sanitation department that not only supervised the cleaning of medical and surgical facilities, but studied practices and was a leading consultant to industry on standards.  When Public Health Service veterans’ hospitals, the Bureau of War Risk Insurance and another bureau were merged in 1921 to form the Veterans Bureau, an Industrial Medical Service Section responsible for building sanitation, was established as part of the Veterans Bureau Executive Office.

On June 24, 1954, VA established the first division devoted entirely to cleaning and maintaining sanitary conditions in its hospitals.  By June 30, 1955, 81 VA hospitals had a division headed by an expert housekeeper on-site. At the time, the division was part of the Engineering, Maintenance, and Operation program under VA’s Department of Medicine and Surgery.  By 1960 the program had become a model for others including the Canadian government, which sent representatives to VA Central Office to study the program with a view of setting up a similar department in their veterans hospitals. By 1968 the division had responsibility for pest management, maintaining hospital grounds, sanitation, laundry, bed service, employee uniforms, painting, signage, and interior design.

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Over the past 149 years the responsibility for maintaining a clean and safe environment in U.S. veterans hospitals has grown and adapted in step with advances in scientific theories and discovery.  Scientific studies since the 1950s have discovered that germs adapt and become more virulent and resistant, and that many materials once considered safe to use were, in fact, toxic—making the work of creating and maintaining a healthful environment more challenging than ever before.  Today’s Environmental Management Programs originated after the Civil War as a small, simple, informal operation in the hands of a few women and veterans and has since grown into a large dedicated service managing multiple complex functions and aspects of cleanliness to maintain a safe environment for veterans, visitors, and VA employees.  Please thank an EMS employee today for their dedicated, yet quiet, behind-the-scenes work that is so vital for the healthful existence of all who come into a VA facility!

Photo credits:

Top – “Laundry help” at Milwaukee VAMC (then known as Northwestern Branch of National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers), 1916; courtesy Milwaukee VAMC medical library

Center – “Laundry group, U.S. V.A.H., Wood, Wis., May 1938,” courtesy Milwaukee VAMC medical library

Bottom – “Laundry and Employes,” Marion (IN), 1916

Story: Department of Veteran Affairs Historian

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