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medical waste managing

Managing Your Medical Waste Disposal: A Comprehensive Guide

Proper medical waste management is vital in protecting the welfare of our health care workers, staff and patients. Taking a wider view, it is also crucial to the health and safety of our communities and the environment.

Good medical waste management includes proper handling, storage, transport, processing and disposal of waste. The consequences of negligence in this area can be dire.
“Poor waste management may jeopardize patients and their families, employees handling medical waste, care staff, and the others who come in contact with it,”
reported Your Renewable News. “The inappropriate disposal or treatment of the waste may result in pollution or environmental contamination. These risks can be significantly reduced using appropriate and simple measures.” When you choose to outsource your medical waste management, you demonstrate a commitment to your workers and to the community. You are guaranteeing that skilled workers who are trained in the safe collection, handling and transportation of medical waste are on the case and doing their part to protect your facility. But even if you outsource your medical waste management, you still have an important role to play in health and safety. Your prime responsibility as a health care facility becomes the proper handling and storage of medical waste before it is picked up and taken off-site.

Managing your medical waste disposal

The rule of thumb with medical waste disposal is timely discard as close to the point of waste generation as possible. That means assessing the types of waste you will generate in a specific setting and then making sure you have the proper, labeled receptacles close at hand. In that assessment, your medical facility should make sure its compliant with your state’s guidelines on what constitutes medical waste. If you are using an off-site medical waste disposal company, make sure they too are up-to-date and compliant on the latest regulations for your state. Check this interactive map of state environmental agencies and list of state health agencies for more information.

Use the right waste receptacles every time

Proper medical waste receptacles and bags should be made of combustible, non-halogenated plastics and should be color-coded and labeled for the type of medical waste they contain. Color coding and labeling helps avoid any confusion among healthcare workers as well as those who handle removing your medical waste to take it off-site. As a reminder of what goes where, post instructions on waste separation and identification at each waste collection site.

medical waste containers

Some common medical waste containers.

Chemical and pharmaceutical waste should be disposed in a brown plastic bag or container and general health care waste in a black plastic bag. Infectious waste that comes from lab cultures, surgeries or autopsies on patients with infectious diseases, and infected lab animals should be discarded in strong, leak-proof yellow bags or containers. Infectious waste containers and bags should always be marked with the international infectious substance symbol. If you are handling highly contagious infectious materials, it should be sterilized as soon as possible by autoclaving. Make sure this waste is immediately disposed of in a yellow container capable of being autoclaved.

Consult your medical waste disposal company for more information about guidelines for color-coding and labeling your medical waste, as well as the handling and swift disposal of highly contagious materials.

Proper sharps disposal and the costs you can incur when you don’t comply

Proper sharps disposal is an important component of your overall medical waste disposal plan. “Sharps” are any medical devices with sharp points or edges that can puncture or cut the skin; they include needles, syringes, lancets, and auto injectors like insulin pens.

According to the CDC, “Occupational exposure to bloodborne pathogens from needlesticks and other sharps injuries is a serious problem, resulting in approximately 385,000 needlesticks and other sharps-related injuries to hospital-based healthcare personnel each year.” Injuries from sharps are associated with hepatitis B and C, HIV, and more than 20 other pathogens. Everyone from health care workers to janitors and other cleaning personnel can suffer injuries from encounters with improperly discarded sharps.

sharps disposal

Beware: Sharps are called sharps because they are… sharp!

Negligence in sharps disposal can also result in steep fines. In April 2016, Cooper Hospital was fined $55,000 by The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for various employee training violations, including not teaching them to immediately discard “contaminated sharps, such as needles, in appropriate containers” and improperly labeling their sharps containers.

And the costs don’t stop with fines. According to Waste360, “The CDC estimates that for each needle stick, direct costs can range from $71 to over $5,000 for initial and follow-up treatment. Further direct costs can include medical care should a transmission occur and litigation as well as indirect costs related to lost time and emotional costs.”

Safely dispose your medical sharps/needles

Sharps injuries can be avoided by disposing of each needle properly after its one-time use. Your waste management company will supply you with the appropriate marked containers. The CDC recommends organizing your work area with the sharps disposal containers within reach. They also warn against overfilling the containers and advise workers to keep fingers away from the opening of the receptacle.

Most containers come with a hole to insert the sharps.

Most containers come with a hole to insert the sharps.

Make sure to let other hospital personnel know if you see a needle that has been improperly discarded—in a trash bin or other receptacle that is not labeled as a sealed sharps container. Let someone know immediately if you see used sharps in linens, beds, or on the floor.

Removal of all medical waste receptacles

It is advisable to remove medical waste receptacles once they are three-quarters full. Good medical waste management companies follow a regular pickup schedule so your waste is never sitting idle for too long, but in some instances you may want to arrange for a special pickup and removal.

By consistently following these simple guidelines, you will not only help your medical waste management partner to better serve you; you will also have peace of mind that you are doing your part in protecting your greatest assets: your staff and patients.

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What Happens To My Medical Waste After It’s Taken Away?

For some people, out of sight is out of mind. But if you DVR “How It’s Made” on the Discovery Channel or regularly spend time on websites like HowStuffWorks.com, you might be just a little curious. What exactly happens to all your organization’s medical waste once the bags and containers are hauled away?

First, let’s go back a few decades in history. In the summer of 1988, medical waste washed up on five East Coast beaches. Medical waste appearing on our shoreline is almost as scary a prospect as bloodthirsty sharks, and a public outcry ensued. Congress sprang to action, enacting the Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1988.  Regulations on how medical waste could be disposed of became more stringent.  

Fast forward to the present.  Today we know more about the risks of poor medical waste management.  It is helpful to keep in mind a statistic from the World Health Organization (WHO), which states, “about 85% of waste generated by healthcare is general and non-hazardous waste. 15% is considered hazardous.” Also, at the conclusion of the Medical Waste Tracking Act in 1991, the EPA determined that healthcare professionals face a higher risk handling infectious waste at its source than the general public once the waste is disposed of and time has elapsed.  

Of course, when it comes to medical waste disposal of any kind, safety and compliance are still crucial elements in keeping the public and environment healthy.  It is now up to each state’s environment and health departments to decide how to best regulate the collection, transportation, treatment and disposal of their state’s medical waste. You can read up on your particular state’s regulations here.
Apart from some variations among states, managing medical waste disposal follows five key stages:
  • Segregation: what treatment does the waste require?
  • Packaging: what receptacle does it get stored in before it’s transported?
  • Transportation: medical waste must be safely and securely transported to a treatment or disposal facility.
  • Treatment/Destruction: Depending on if the medical waste is Regulated Medical Waste (RMW), a treatment or destruction method must be assigned.
  • Disposal: The treated medical waste is disposed of in a landfill or approved sewer system.
Having a medical waste disposal provider who is timely and dependable is the first requirement for any efficient disposal process. Medical waste—even when it is safely contained in the proper receptacle—is not something that should sit around for too long. Once it is picked up, the trained driver must follow strict protocols for transporting the waste. Different kinds of medical waste need to be segregated in the truck, and the truck needs to be marked so other drivers on the road know it is carrying potentially infectious materials. Having a protocol in place in the event of an accident, including a spill containment and cleanup kit on every truck, is also necessary.

Choosing a method of treatment



Once the medical waste arrives at its destination, it’s ready for treatment. According to the EPA, before 1997 “more than 90% of potentially infectious medical waste was incinerated”—often on-site, where the waste was generated. But new emission standards for medical waste incinerators spurred alternative methods, and now several additional options for treatment of RMW and non-infectious medical waste exist.

These methods include steam sterilization, chemical disinfection with grinding or encapsulation, thermal inactivation, irradiation, grinding and shredding, and compaction. The type of method used depends in part on what type of medical waste is at issue—is it sharps, cultures and stocks or human blood? All need to be treated in specific ways.

  Steam sterilization is using saturated steam within a pressure vessel (sometimes called an autoclave) to kill infectious properties in the waste. Chemical disinfection with grinding or encapsulation involves grinding the waste in a hammermill while also using a chemical disinfectant. Thermal inactivation uses the transfer of heat to reduce infectious properties in the waste. Materials that can’t be treated thermally can be irradiated. Irradiation exposes waste to ultraviolet or ionizing radiation to break down infectious agents.

Finally, compaction is a method to reduce the volume of waste. It is not a treatment method, per se, but it can transform the waste into something unrecognizable—another essential element of the disposal process.   Once solid medical waste is treated, it is considered municipal waste, and it is shipped to a sanitary landfill. If the waste is in liquid form, it can be sent to a health-department approved septic system or sanitary sewer system for further treatment at a wastewater plant.

So the next time you see your sharps bin or your medical waste boxes carried off, know that great care is being taken to safely dispose of it for good.

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sharps container

What To Look For In A Medical Waste Disposal Company

Choosing a medical waste disposal company can be tricky if you’re not sure what to look for. If you’re a busy doctor’s office or hospital you might be tempted to just pick the first company that appears in your Google search results. After all, what’s the difference—they all do essentially the same job, right? You just want to get rid of your biohazardous waste quickly, safely and with as few headaches as possible so you can get back to the rest of your work.

Sifting through all the options

The good news is that the medical waste management business is growing, which means consumers have more choice of services. According to RNR Market Research, there are several factors contributing to this growth, including more medical waste regulation and an aging Baby Boomer population requiring more health services and procedures, which in turn incurs larger amounts of medical waste. This is good news for consumers because it means there are more options in medical waste disposal companies. But having lots of options can be confusing, especially if you’re not clear on what differentiates one company from another.

When it comes to choosing a medical waste disposal company, instead of flying blind take a minute to get informed on the key factors to look for and the questions to ask when searching for a service. Spending a few minutes of research now means that you won’t have to revisit the same decision six months later, when it turns out the company you picked isn’t meeting your needs or fully complying with your state’s regulations.

1. Do you have to immediately sign a contract or can you “try before you buy?”

If you’re like most people, you don’t want to be tied down to one provider until you’ve had a chance to see if you’re a good fit and if you’re happy with the company’s services for the price. Look for a medical waste disposal company that offers a contract-free grace period so you can try them out first. Customer loyalty has to be earned. Any company that doesn’t offer a no-commitment trial might not be confident in it’s ability to keep you as a customer.

2. Will your annual service rates go up unexpectedly?

No one likes negative surprises, but some companies may try to impose hidden fees and service charges. One medical waste disposal company in Tennessee was sued for regularly raising its rates even though it promised only to do so under “limited conditions.” Make sure there isn’t any fine print in your bill or contract.

3. Is the company fully compliant with federal and state regulations for medical waste disposal?

You might assume this is a given for any medical waste management company, but regulations differ from state to state and are subject to change. You want to make sure the company you choose understands all the regulations and is keeping up-to-date with new rules as they arise.

4. Does the company offer a variety of materials and receptacles to suit your waste management needs?

A small clinic is going to have different needs than a city hospital. Make sure the medical waste disposal company you choose offers a variety of sizes of tubs, barrels and containers for your use, as well as complementary red biohazard bags, liners and boxes.

5. Does the company make regular and/or frequent pickups?

No hospital staff member wants to see medical waste just sitting around, even if it’s in a sealed receptacle. A good medical waste management company will make regular pickups so your waste is gotten rid of quickly and efficiently!

6. Can you reliably reach someone in customer service if you have questions, especially about what to dispose of and where?

It may not be immediately obvious what waste can go in your waste receptacles and no one should expect you to have to guess! For instance, a sharps container is usually thought of as a receptacle for needles syringes but it can actually hold all medical waste materials that have the ability to puncture skin. On the other hand, standard office supplies and household items should never be thrown in your red biohazard bags. If you’re unsure of what you can dispose safely and where, it helps to have access to a quality customer service team who can answer your questions and are there when you need them.

It pays to be informed

Knowing the right things to look for in a waste management company will help you make the right decision the first time. It’s a good feeling when you know you can count on your service provider to be honest, professional and compliant.

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