Handling healthcare waste

26 September 2017

Luke Rutterford, technical manager for Initial Medical, looks at how best to implement safe and effective waste management procedures in healthcare environments

No matter what setting you work in – from hospitals to care homes, dental, cosmetic and medical practices, tattoo clinics and food preparation sites – ensuring you clean every inch of every room is the safest way to ensure the health and safety of both yourself and anyone else that may enter the premises. This is of particular importance within healthcare environments, where the risk of infection is already higher and the people visiting your building may include some of the most vulnerable in society.

Minimising the risk

Within the various healthcare environments where infection control is crucial, employees follow strict guidelines in order to minimise the risk of harm to any individuals. Among these are best practice protocols for the safe and effective segregation and disposal of all waste, designed by the Department of Health. These outline a best practice waste segregation colour coding system for the producers of hazardous and non-hazardous waste. 

It’s important for you and your team to recognise this colour code so that you are aware of the type of waste you are handling whenever moving or storing full bags or waste containers. Here’s a basic summary:

Orange – Clinical and infectious waste – Any waste arising from healthcare activities that could pose a risk to public health or the environment, unless properly disposed of. This includes used swabs, gloves, paper towels and masks.

White – Dental waste – This can either be amalgam waste or gypsum waste. Amalgam is the material used in traditional metal fillings, and some amalgams still contain high percentages of mercury circa 50%; amalgam waste is hazardous as it releases mercury vapour that can be absorbed by the lungs and high exposure has been associated with health effects in the brain and kidneys. Dental gypsum is a material used to make traditional impressions; it is banned from normal landfill as it can produce sulphide gas when mixed with biodegradable waste. 

Blue – Medicinal waste – This includes tablets in containers, blister packs, unopened medicine vials, anaesthetic cartridges and any waste pharmaceuticals or out-of-date or denatured drugs.

Yellow – Clinical and highly infectious waste – Almost always classified as ‘hazardous’, this type of waste includes any disposable items, including any protective clothing or dressings, that are contaminated with the bodily fluids of infectious patients. 

Purple – Cytotoxic and Cytostatic waste – This involves any disposable items that have come into contact with cytotoxic or cytostatic substances (mostly found in cancer treatments), and includes needles used for procedures such as botulinum toxin.

Tiger – Offensive / hygiene waste – This includes any nappies, feminine sanitary products and incontinence pads.

Black – Mixed municipal waste – General waste such as wrappers, packaging and food or drink containers should go into normal black bags.

Stay safe

To ensure your safety while handling these waste streams, here are some top tips:

Wear gloves. Particularly when handling any highly infectious waste or cytotoxic and cytostatic waste, gloves will offer an extra layer of protection should your hands come into contact with a waste item.

Beware of sharps. Sharps should always be in the official sharps container, this should never be filled to the top of the container, as this can prevent proper closure. If you are filling sharps bins up rapidly, consider increasing the frequency of collection rather than storing full containers. Always consider the potential for sharps to be in normal waste accidentally, and always handle waste containers and bags with care. 

Store safely. There should be an allocated area to store all full bags and containers on each premise, however ideally consider increasing the frequency of collection rather than storing waste. Ensure all waste is out of reach of patients or the public. It’s important that any designated storage areas are dry and secure, such as a locked cupboard or a designated storage area in the basement etc.  

Further segregate chemical waste. Any cleaning products that contain chemicals classified as dangerous substances (assigned a chemical risk phrase or stated on the safety data sheet) should not be discarded into any clinical, offensive or mixed municipal waste streams. The waste containing these chemicals should be classified with the relevant chemical codes in order to ensure safe and effective disposal. For more information, check the labels.