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Definitive Guide to Sharps Waste Disposal

July 9, 2021

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Definitive Guide to Sharps Waste Disposal

A Definitive Guide to Sharps Waste Disposal. You have probably heard of the term “Sharps” before. Sharps are any of several items that can pierce the skin, may contain contagious pathogens, and present a danger when they are improperly disposed of. Sharps can include needles, syringes, lancets, and broken glass. Sharps waste is a type of medical waste most often found in a healthcare setting and is one of the leading causes of injury to healthcare workers.

Sharps Waste

Sharps waste can carry and transmit many types of bloodborne pathogens and diseases. Without proper management, handling, and disposal practices these objects can end up in landfills that can cause detrimental harm to people, wildlife, and the environment. There are local, state, and federal guidelines that have been established for every step of sharps use and disposal, which includes ensuring that they are professionally destroyed to avoid any possibility of contagion. The importance of compliance with the laws cannot be understated and lack of compliance can result in fines as well as possible legal procedures. The various government organizations involved in sharps waste handling and disposal include OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), DOT (Department of Transportation), FDA (Food and Drug Administration), and CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).  Every state has specific laws established as well as departments that govern, monitor, and audit the proper handling and disposal of sharps. Federal agencies supercede whenever a state lacks a specific division.

Sharps Waste Disposal

Containers for sharps disposal have very specific requirements. While the FDA doesn’t recommend any specific container manufacturers, FDA regulations list sharps containers as class II devices subject to pre-market notification (410(k)) requirements (21 CFR 880.5570; product code MKK and FMI). The containers are made from rigid plastic or metal that are puncture-resistant, sides and bottom that are leak-resistant, and a lid that is tight-fitting/sealable that is puncture-resistant. The sharps container should be sturdy and stable in an upright position. The opening of a sharps container should only be large enough for the disposing the sharps but never larger enough to fit a hand. Exterior labeling should include the universal biohazard symbol. Most sharps containers are yellow or red and may be lined with a leak-proof biohazard bag that should be tied off. Sharps containers are never to be filled past the 2/3 point. Sharps containers for home/work disposal are typically recommended as standard laundry soap containers that have a small opening and tight-sealed lid with placement of the biohazard label on the exterior.

Sharps waste must be disposed of through a licensed, trained, and professional medical waste disposal company or within a medical environment that has their own licensed waste disposal unit, or a licensed drop off point for sharps. The process of disposal for sharps renders them harmless by autoclaving. This process uses high pressure, high temperature steam as a sterilization process. Once treated, the remains can be safely placed in an approved landfill. In some cases sharps may contain trace elements that require incineration. This process requires that the waste be subjected to high temperatures that result in burning or combustion. The ash that remains is safe and is then taking to an approved landfill for disposal.

What is Sharps Waste?

Sharps waste is a type of biohazard waste and is any item that is contaminated or could potentially be contaminated with contagious pathogens and can pierce or lacerate the skin. Commonly used in the medical field, sharps waste can include but is not limited to: hypodermic needles, scalpels, knives, lancets, blades, scissors, broken glass or plastic, surgical guidewires, items such as injection devices and syringes attached to needles. Although most sharps are used in medical facilities, sharps can also be found for use in the home, work environment, and during travel for medical condition management for people and pets. There are many medical conditions that require the use of sharps including but not limited to: infertility, cancer, arthritis, allergies, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, migraines, osteoporosis, psoriasis, hepatitis, and blood clotting disorders. Sharps waste is generated in a variety of locations including but not limited to: hospitals, medical clinics, at physician’s offices, dentists, veterinarians, funeral homes/morgues, research laboratories, pharmacies, coroner’s offices, tattoo parlors, and body piercing companies.

Why is Sharps Waste a Concern?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has listed that there are approximately 385,000 sharps injuries each year: most involving staff in healthcare facilities and settings. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has estimated that nearing 5.6 million U.S. healthcare workers are at risk for exposure to sharps injuries. Contaminated sharps involved in injuries can potentially transmit dangerous bloodborne diseases such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). 40% of sharps injuries occur after immediate use and/or prior to disposal of the sharps, with 41 % of injuries happening during sharps use on patients, and 15% of sharps injuries happening during or after sharps disposal. Proper disposal of sharps is considered to be a high priority due to the cost involved in staff stress, anxiety, personal short and long-term trauma, and loss of work.

Why is Sharps Waste Dangerous?

Sharps waste can present hazards in transmitting toxic and infectious pathogens. Improperly discarded needles and sharps can be infected with insulin, pathogens, blood, body fluids, medications, and diseases such as hepatitis and HIV. The medical community is involved in making billions of injections each year and when the sharps are not disposed of correctly it can result in causing critical illnesses and infections to people and animals as well as seeping into ground so that it poisons water supplies and the environment. When an individual is injured due to a sharps accident they can suffer the risk of getting a disease or other infections. To avoid dangerous injuries, all individuals in the medical industry and those in the home/workspace that use sharps must be trained on their proper handling and disposal. For private use, individuals should know the locations that they can take their sharps waste containers for disposal. Each state has their own laws and guidelines for licensed locations for sharps waste disposal and some may be fee-based.

Who is at Risk from Sharps Waste?

A large percentage of sharps injuries happen in medical and health environments, however, anyone that handles sharps and/or sharps containers is at risk. Specific lines of work that are the highest risk can include nurses, doctors, pharmacists, pharmacist technicians, veterinarians, dentists/dental technicians, and those involved in pickup and disposal of sharps containers. Many of the injuries involving sharps happen when the sharps are being passed between individuals as well as transferred to a different place. An old practice of “recapping” contaminated needles is no longer used due to the danger, however, there are still around 5% of sharps injuries that result from those that continue to use the recapping procedure. Additional injuries happen to those involved in work practices involving collisions between workers as well as those that may be involved in processing used equipment or the decontamination process. Other personnel that experience sharps injuries are due to improper disposal methods for used sharps. These can occur when sharps are left in places such as linens, laundry, left on tables/trays or other locations, left in pockets, or stuck in mattresses.

What are the Guidelines for Sharps Waste Disposal?

Care must be taken at every step to ensure safe handling and disposal of sharps waste.

Prior to Use:

After Use:



There is a lot to know and learn in dealing with, handling, and safe disposal of sharps. Sharps present some of the most dangerous equipment and the priority of proper disposal requirements can be overwhelming. Professional medical waste companies such as Healthcare Waste Management (HWM) are knowledgeable on all local, state, and federal laws for the states serviced. As a licensed organization, HWM offers assistance and guidance for clients that have all forms of medical waste, including sharps disposal. Customers can have all their questions answered by licensed team members along with a review of their facilities to assure compliance. HWM coordinates to supply FDA-cleared containers, conveniently scheduled pickup times, and certification/proof of disposal. The OSHA-approved online training courses that we offer to customers make sure that all employees are trained in safety that relate to their specific jobs.

The best way to ensure the safety of all individuals as well as local/state/federal compliance is to work with a professional company such as HWM. All staff is employed by our company, and we own all our trucks and destruction facilities. HWM has decades of experience with clients and are committed to helping with all their medical waste disposal needs. HWM takes pride in eliminating the stress involved in medical waste disposal by offering an array of services that are cost-effective. Our team covers every aspect of medical waste disposal and helps to maintain safety for our customers.

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