This is the first of a four-part article on how to identify infectious/medical waste and recommendations for proper disposal.

In any discussion relating to infectious waste, it helps to begin with the facts, says Eric Bates, director of hospitality at Jewish Home and Care Center in Milwaukee. The facts he refers to include the following:

• According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 80 percent of the waste generated by healthcare activities is general waste, and 20 percent is considered hazardous material that may be infectious, toxic or radioactive. And 15 percent of that hazardous material is classified as infectious waste.

• Bates has found that more than 50 percent of the items disposed of as infectious waste would actually fall into the general waste category.

• It costs an estimated $6 more per pound to dispose of infectious waste versus non-regulated waste streams. And improper disposal of hazardous waste can lead to thousands of dollars in fines.

• Disposal errors can also eat up a lot of time. In Wisconsin, Bates reports that supervisors in any healthcare facility that disposes of more than 50 pounds of infectious waste per month for three consecutive months will need to fill out volumes of paperwork to show how they plan to reduce medical waste in their facility.

“Infectious waste collection, handling and disposal are among the biggest problems in this industry,” Bates says, adding that education is the ultimate solution.

Define Infectious Waste

Proper disposal of infectious waste begins with a solid understanding of what it is.

WHO defines infectious waste as “waste contaminated with blood and its byproducts, cultures and stocks of infectious agents, waste from patients in isolation wards, discarded diagnostic samples containing blood and body fluids, and contaminated materials (swabs and bandages) and equipment (such as disposable medical devices).”

OSHA 1910.1030 (b) defines regulated medical waste as “liquid or semi-liquid blood or other potentially infectious materials; contaminated items that would release blood or other potentially infectious materials in a liquid or semi-liquid state if compressed; and items that are caked with dried blood or other potentially infectious materials and are capable of releasing these materials during handling.”

The measure used to determine whether or not these products are considered hazardous or infectious also includes whether they are saturated, pourable, drippable or flakeable, adds Bates.

When waste falls into any of these categories, it must be separated from the regular trash and disposed of properly, according to Steve Attman, vice president-principal with Acme Paper and Supply Co., Savage, Maryland. Unfortunately, he too agrees with Bates that this is where the custodial industry falls short.

“The waste stream for red bags is far more expensive than the waste stream for regular trash,” Attman stresses, adding that custodial operations need systems in place to reduce the amount of regular trash tossed into the red bags.

“Improper disposal increases the amount of tonnage of infectious waste and the amount hospitals have to pay to dispose of it,” he explains.

Jewish Home and Care Center spends considerable time teaching its employees how to separate waste properly. Training begins at orientation for new hires where an instructor defines medical waste, how it should be handled and its proper disposal. Then annually, they revisit proper handling and disposal of waste with environmental services employees.

“We still have [improper disposal], but it’s not as severe as in years past,” Bates says. “Education has to be ongoing.”

next page of this article:
Containing Hazardous Waste: Finding A Strong Hold