June 04, 2024

Understanding Sharps Waste & Proper Needle Disposal

Nurses nationwide are regularly tasked with the disposal of sharps waste, a routine yet critical part of their daily responsibilities. The absence of stringent safety measures, however, elevates the risk associated with this essential healthcare duty.

Ensuring the proper disposal of medical waste, including sharps, is crucial for protecting healthcare workers, patients, and the environment. According to a recent Stericycle study, 66% of nurses dispose of sharps ten or more times per day. With 15% of related injuries occurring during or after disposal, it’s imperative to prioritize safe disposal practices. A comprehensive understanding of safe sharps waste management is vital for safeguarding your staff, patients, and community.

What Are Sharps?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines contaminated sharps as contaminated objects that can penetrate the skin, including, but not limited to, needles, scalpels, broken glass, broken capillary tubes, and exposed ends of dental wires. In healthcare, contaminated sharps constitute biohazardous waste generated during the provision of care, treatment, and services. When a contaminated sharp penetrates the skin, such as through a puncture or cut, there is a risk of bloodborne pathogen transmission. These pathogens include infectious microorganisms—viruses, bacteria, or fungi—that are found in blood and bodily fluids and are capable of infecting healthcare workers with severe diseases such as hepatitis and HIV.

How Can You Prevent Sharps Injuries?

The proper disposal of sharps waste is essential for minimizing the transmission of bloodborne pathogens and for reducing the financial burden of non-compliance penalties and employee treatment costs.  Federal OSHA issued 184 citations in the healthcare industry for bloodborne pathogens violations that took place between October 2022 and September 2023, with an average cost of $2,564 per citation.

To prevent sharps injuries, healthcare facilities must ensure that the correct sharps are being placed in compliant containers; examples of sharps may include:

  • Blood vials
  • Broken glass or capillary tubes
  • Culture dishes and slides
  • Exposed ends of dental wires
  • Lancets
  • Needles and hypodermics
  • Pipettes
  • Root canal files
  • Scalpel blades
  • Suture needles
  • Syringes, with or without needles
  • Trauma scene waste capable of cutting, slicing, or piercing
  • Tubing with needles

How Should Healthcare Organizations Properly Dispose of Needles and Other Sharps?

Sharps should be placed in a specially designed sharps container immediately or as soon as feasible after use. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that FDA-cleared sharps containers be used for sharps disposal. These receptacles are made of rigid plastic and are designed to prevent punctures and leaks. They must also be clearly labeled as biohazardous to ensure proper handling.

Healthcare organizations should place sharps waste disposal containers in all locations where sharps are used, including exam rooms, laboratories, pharmacies, and nurses’ stations. Containers should be positioned as close as possible to the point of use and be installed at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-recommended height for easy employee access. Organizations may opt to use reusable sharps containers to help meet organizational sustainability goals.

How Should Non-Healthcare Organizations Properly Dispose of Needles and Other Sharps?

As the use of self-injectable medications becomes more common for conditions like psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, obesity, arthritis, and diabetes, non-healthcare settings such as workplaces and schools should also consider installing sharps disposal containers on their premises. These containers should be placed in accessible areas like restrooms to allow for safe, convenient, and private disposal of sharps. This practice not only offers peace of mind to individuals requiring injections outside their homes but also safeguards janitorial staff from the risks of needlestick injuries due to improperly discarded needles.

What Should Not Go in a Sharps Container?

Sharps containers are specifically designed for items that are both contaminated and pose a puncture risk. Adequate training ensures that staff members are knowledgeable about the proper use of these containers. Items that should not be placed in sharps containers include:

  • Tape, paper, bandages, gauze, and exam gloves
  • Alcohol prep pads
  • Medications and their packaging
  • Controlled substances
  • Aerosols and inhalers
  • General waste or packaging materials
  • Liquids that are not contained
  • Batteries
  • Cauterizing equipment
  • Fluorescein dye
  • Hazardous or chemical waste
  • Radioactive materials
  • Non-sharps regulated medical waste (red bag waste)
  • Fixatives and preservatives

It’s important to follow these guidelines to maintain safety and compliance with health regulations.

How to Dispose of Sharps Containers

Once a sharps container is full, it should be removed from the facility and transported and disposed of by a medical waste management expert. Some states have adopted time limits within which sharps waste must be disposed. It is important to follow state-specific requirements, in addition to federal requirements.

Organizations that do not generate a large volume of sharps waste may opt to use mail back sharps containers like Stericycle’s SafeDrop™ Sharps Mail Back Program, which provides a cost-effective, convenient mail-back disposal option. The all-in-one sharps management kit includes:

  • Sharps container and plastic liner
  • Step-by-step instructions
  • Pre-addressed, postage-paid return shipping labels
  • Barcoded return shipping container
  • Prepaid sharps treatment and disposal
  • Serialized tracking documents (for tracking delivery to the treatment facility)

How Is Sharps Waste Regulated?

Several federal agencies regulate various aspects of sharps waste management. The Department of Transportation (DOT) oversees how sharps waste is transported. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) addresses worker safety implications regarding bloodborne pathogen transmission, through proper waste containers, staff training, and injury reporting.

At the state level, other regulatory authorities may have additional rules related to sharps waste. When developing or refining a sharps waste management program, be sure to identify applicable state and federal regulations to make certain a program is in full compliance.

Benefits of a Full-Service Sharps Waste Management Solution

A full-service sharps waste management solution can support nurses by helping reduce the risk of needlestick injuries associated with overfilled containers, reduce burdensome waste disposal duties, and support short-staffed Environmental Services (EVS) departments. Findings in the most recent Stericycle survey show that a full-service solution that prevents containers from overfilling, the correct training tools, and containers that match nurses’ preferences are important aspects to consider.

Download our info sheet for the full list of what can and cannot go in a sharps container. To learn more about how Stericycle can enhance and support your sharps management and waste program, visit our sharps management service page.

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