What is a Surgical Tray?

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  • Written By: Lori Kilchermann
  • Edited By: Jacob Harkins
  • Last Modified Date: 26 September 2019
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A surgical tray is an instrument found in an operating room. The surgical tray holds all of the tools and equipment that is expected to be required to complete a scheduled surgical procedure. The surgical instruments are taken out of an autoclave or sterilizing machine and placed onto the surgical tray. The tray is then sealed and taken to the operating room.

The common surgical tray is comprised of stainless steel. This allows the tray to be sterilized in very hot water without damage. The trays are polished to a high luster and have room for most required surgical tools. The typical operating room will contain several surgical tray set ups with back-up instruments in case they are needed.

In extreme cases, the surgical tray may be made of a non-metallic material. This is typically used when a magnetic environment is present or in certain extreme emergency conditions. Back-up trays made of composites or plastics are used in remote emergency surgical settings where the weight of stainless steel may be a hindrance. Also, some emergency response teams heading into a disaster situation may pack non-metallic and disposable surgical trays.


The surgical tray allows the instruments to be laid out and displayed in an easily recognizable fashion. This allows an assistant to retrieve the correct instrument without delay. In the event that the surgeon is looking for the optimum tool, a quick glance at the surgical tray will allow the identification of all available tools at his or her disposal.

The head surgical nurse is responsible for preparing the tray and making sure that all of the proper tools are on board. Each surgical case will send a check sheet to the operating room requesting a list of tools to complete the procedure. The nurse will remove the tools from the sterilization machine and arrange them in the proper order and sequence for use. In many cases, an identical tray will be set up in order to compare it to the tool tray which will actually be used. This allows the surgical staff to be sure all instruments are accounted for at the beginning and the completion of the surgery.

Once taken off of the tray, an instrument cannot be returned. The used instrument must be placed onto a designated "used" instrument tray. This is another fail-safe to assure all instruments are accounted for following a surgery. After the surgeon is positive that all instruments are accounted for, the patient is removed from the room and the surgical tray sterilization takes place once again to ready it for use once again.


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