Medical laboratories are at the center of medical diagnosis, discovery and advancement.
The essential and important work done daily in labs across the country naturally results in medical waste: some benign, some hazardous. The lab manager should understand and be aware of the type, volume and method of storage for each waste stream, from the moment it is generated to when and where it is ultimately disposed.
This makes it critical for lab managers to have a laboratory waste disposal plan in place for dealing with the various waste streams generated by their facility, and to train his or her staff on how to handle medical waste properly.
This plan should be transparent, thorough, cost-efficient and should take into account local rules and regulations for Regulated Medical Waste (RMW). Depending on the type of waste, it may be governed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and others. Your medical waste provider should be able to provide more details on these different agencies’ requirements.
Identifying and separating medical lab waste.
The best way to approach the safe identification and disposal of medical waste is to train your technicians and the rest of your staff exactly how to classify and what to do with waste from the point of generation to removal. Staff should be informed of the dangers of mixing waste streams and the importance of properly sealing and storing waste receptacles before pick-up.
Here are the key waste streams you will likely encounter in the lab:
Sharps: these include scalpels, glass shards, needles, etc. Make sure your staff has a sharps disposal container close at hand where used sharps can be deposited. Once the container is about ¾ full, seal and remove it from the lab.
Infectious waste: this is anything contaminated with blood or other body fluids. Improper disposal of infectious waste can result in the transmission of disease, necessitating its separation from regular trash. Place infectious waste in a separate bag or container supplied by your designated medical waste disposal provider.
Chemical waste: according to OSHA, there are approximately 400 substances that constitute chemical waste. These include carcinogens, toxins, irritants, corrosives, sensitizers, hepatotoxins, nephrotoxins, and neurotoxins. All laboratories that use chemicals need to have a written chemical hygiene plan in place to protect staff from exposure. Staff must also dispose of chemical waste in a proper receptacle provided by your medical waste disposal partner.
Pharmaceuticals: these include narcotics used as standards. Check with your medical waste disposal provider to see if they will collect controlled substances.
Radioactive materials: It is essential that you properly dispose of any radioactive materials, such as those used in research and to diagnose and treat certain kinds of Cancers. These materials should be stored in a closed container that is kept isolated and at a distance from the work space. Again, check with your medical waste provider to see if they collect radioactive materials. If they do not, they should be able to refer you to someone who will.
Recyclable materials: these are your standard plastics, paper, glass and aluminum.
Regular trash: Make sure your regular trash bins are clearly marked with a list of what can and cannot be placed inside to avoid someone placing RMW in with common trash.
Plan to succeed: be vigilant and proactive. A good plan also requires strict oversight if it’s to be effective. Lab managers should not only train new employees on safe medical waste disposal, but also periodically audit their lab to make sure the proper protocols are being followed. Many medical waste disposal providers offer training to managers and staff to help them stay compliant. Ask your provider if they offer such a service.
Medical lab managers can also be proactive in reducing the amount of medical waste generated. Part of their overall plan can include replacing certain chemical solutions with less hazardous versions, employing methods to neutralize certain chemicals on-site, and evaluating new medical testing procedures to see if they increase or decrease the amount of waste that will be generated. These actions save money and reduce staff exposure to harmful substances.
If you’re unsure about any aspect of lab waste disposal, be sure to consult your medical waste disposal provider, who knows the local rules and regulations for each waste stream. Your provider can help keep your facility from being fined for improper handling and disposal of your RMW, as well as protect your staff and the public from any harmful exposure.