Medical waste includes hazardous items such as discarded medicines, broken glassware, sharps, anatomical body parts and used bandages, all of which can contain pathogenic microbes that can cause disease. Because of this danger, there are many strict local and federal laws around the handling and disposing of medical waste, which can lead to confusion and mistakes. Here, we breakdown the most common missteps to avoid when disposing of medical waste.
1. Mixing Medical Waste with Other Types of Waste
Medical waste should never be combined with household waste. Instead, it should always be placed in specialized and clearly marked containers. Also, do not put medical waste containers next to other waste containers (to prevent accidental mixing), and do not use red bags for other types of waste.
Eating, drinking, smoking — even applying makeup — while handling medical waste puts your health at serious risk and is strictly forbidden by law. Because medical waste contains very hazardous substances, handlers are specifically instructed not to engage in other activities in order to prevent exposure.
3. Allowing Liquids to Leak
A significant portion of medical waste is liquid – a nasty mix of things like body fluids, dissolved medicines, laboratory reagents, intravenous solutions and disinfectants. Medical waste must be contained in sealed and sturdy containers to keep these liquids from spraying or leaking during handling, disposal, transport and hauling.
4. Treating Sharps the Same as all Other Medical Waste
Yes, sharps are medical waste, but they need to be disposed of differently. Throwing them away in the same manner as other medical waste can lead to punctures that can cause injury to handlers. Sharps must be discarded separately, right at the source, in specifically made sharps containers that are sturdy, narrow-mouthed and sealable. Also, never bend or break sharps.
5. Opening Medical Waste Containers
Opening closed medical waste containers can cause contamination and exposure. When they are sealed, they should not be opened for inspection or segregation. Medical waste is not segregated into biodegradable or non-biodegradable items, and it is never done with already closed containers. Inspection is not applicable on medical waste containers that are already sealed.
6. Using Your Bare Hands
Wearing proper personal protective equipment (PPE) is mandatory for anyone who handles and collects medical waste. This includes wearing nitrile gloves, facemasks, goggles and full-length gowns.
7. Storing Containers in Unrefrigerated Rooms
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Bloodborne Pathogens Standard states that the long-term storage or staging area for filled medical waste containers must be refrigerated in order to prevent decay (which can attract vermin). Medical waste destined for storage must be stored in refrigerated rooms specifically designated as a staging area for biohazardous waste. Refrigeration units for food or other chemicals must never be used to refrigerate medical waste.
8. Using Unmodified Vehicles for Transport
It is against the law to transport medical waste containers using a pickup truck or any other unmodified vehicle. According to OSHA, medical waste transporters must follow U.S. Department of Transportation guidelines using specifically modified automobiles. Transport vehicles must have an enclosed and sealed compartment for waste, as well as an impermeable lining to prevent unintentional leaks.
9. Allowing Untrained Individuals to Handle Medical Waste
Only persons trained in medical waste management should handle and dispose of biohazardous waste. Trained medical waste collectors gather and process waste in a manner that minimizes the chance of leakage, contamination to surfaces and exposure. Professional medical waste collectors undergo schooling and certification to make sure collection and disposal are done safely and with as little impact to the environment as possible.
10. Neglecting Documentation During Storage and Disposal
Collected medical waste must have tracking documents with it at all times stating the quantity of waste transported, the date transported and the name of the registered hazardous waste hauler or trained individual transporting the waste. This ensures that it is accounted for throughout processing — from collection to disposal.