June 20, 2022

Safe Handling of Medical Sharps Waste

Safety is critical in delivering effective patient care in every healthcare setting, from hospitals to local pharmacies and nursing homes. Unsafe work environments can create stress and burnout, which can lead to poor patient outcomes and contribute to the “Great Resignation” in healthcare. To help protect patients and staff, healthcare organizations should put safety at the center of their operations.

Effective medical waste management can be instrumental in helping make healthcare environments safe and efficient for patients and providers. Stericycle’s 2021 Healthcare Workplace Safety Trend Report found that 9 in 10 healthcare providers surveyed believe medical waste management is key to delivering the best patient care possible. In addition, 7 in 10 providers surveyed also believe that improperly managed medical waste greatly impacts patient health and safety.

One critical element of safe and effective medical waste management is the proper disposal of medical sharps, which refers to any contaminated or potentially contaminated device with sharp points or edges that can puncture or damage the skin, including hypodermic needles, syringes, scalpels, and exposed ends of dental wires. Sharps waste can be produced in a wide range of healthcare settings, such as hospitals, retail pharmacies, dialysis centers, and patients’ homes.

Sharps-related injuries are common in healthcare environments. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 385,000 needlestick and other sharps-related injuries are sustained each year by hospital-based healthcare personnel. These injuries risk the spread of bloodborne pathogens (BBPs), including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis B (HBV), and hepatitis C (HCV) viruses. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has established the Bloodborne Pathogens Standard, which dictates what employers must do to help protect employees who have potential exposure to BBPs at work. Healthcare organizations must follow OSHA regulations to remain compliant and protect patients and staff.

Proper sharps waste management and disposal have been part of Stericycle’s mission from its founding, when an influx of sharps waste was washing up on beaches and threatening community safety. In recent years, Stericycle supported COVID-19 vaccine rollouts across the country, providing sharps waste disposal services not just in traditional healthcare settings but also in school gyms, community centers, and parking lots. To help healthcare leaders create a safer and more efficient environment for their employees and patients, Stericycle has answered some frequently asked questions about safe sharps waste disposal.

How can sharps injuries occur?

Sharps injuries at healthcare organizations can result from using and disposing of sharps in a fast-paced, stressful environment. Some examples of activities that are associated with needlestick injuries include:

  • During use: Healthcare workers can suffer needlestick injuries at any point when a needle is exposed. Accessing IV lines, transferring equipment, and inserting or removing needles from patients can lead to needlestick injuries. All healthcare employees must be properly trained in the correct use of sharps to help prevent common mistakes.
  • Recapping: Attempting to recap a needle after use can be a source of sharps-related injuries. Healthcare workers should instead dispose the needle immediately after it is no longer needed.
  • Disposal: Needlestick injuries can also occur during medical waste disposal. For example, a healthcare worker might collide with another while attempting to dispose of a needle. Ineffective sharps disposal containers can also cause injury if, for example, a lid is not fully secured and results in a spill.

Who is at risk of a needlestick injury?

Healthcare workers are at risk for sharps-related injuries. The CDC estimates that 5.6 million workers in the health care industry and related occupations are at risk of occupational exposure to bloodborne pathogens, including from sharps-related injuries. This includes employees in not only hospitals and doctors’ offices, but employees administering vaccines in retail pharmacies, employees handling sharps in senior care facilities and at-home settings, and even veterinary care professionals.

Patients can also be injured. For instance, many patients with diabetes administer insulin themselves, either using a syringe or an insulin pen. If not handled correctly, these devices can harm patients.

What are the consequences of a needlestick injury?

Sharps-related injuries risk the transmission of BBPs (such as HIV, HBV, and HCV), which can cause serious lifelong health issues and can even be fatal. As a result, needlestick injuries can create high levels of stress for healthcare workers and those around them. Additionally, if a healthcare worker contracts a virus due to a needlestick injury at work, healthcare organizations risk thousands of dollars in treatment costs and potential legal action.

What can healthcare leaders do to help reduce sharps-related injuries?

Stericycle recommends the following steps to help create a safer working environment for healthcare employees and patients:

  • Educate employees: If healthcare workers do not understand the proper procedures and best practices for managing sharps before, during and after use, they are more likely to make mistakes leading to injuries. All healthcare employees should undergo regular training on OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogen Standard as well as organization-specific sharps use protocols.
  • Prioritize effective medical waste management: Sharps-related injuries can occur due to poor placement and quality of sharps waste disposal containers. OSHA requires that containers for contaminated sharps be easily accessible to personnel and located as close as is feasible to the immediate area where sharps are used. In addition to careful placement of sharps waste containers, organizations should also invest in sharps containers that are puncture-resistant, as required by OSHA.

Safety is a bedrock of excellent patient care. By taking simple steps to promote sharps safety, healthcare leaders can help ensure their employees remain safe, confident, and stress-free—and in a position to give patients the best care possible. Learn more about how Stericycle can help your organization with sharps waste disposal. 

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