In this day and age, nearly everyone knows that the hypodermic needles used to give injections belong in sharps containers when it comes time to discard them. That simple fact has become common knowledge over recent years, even among people who are not in the healthcare field. However, what is murkier in the minds of many – even medical professionals, medical office managers and other support staff – is what, besides those needles, should be disposed of in these specialized containers. Here we’ll help clear the confusion by outlining what else should go in sharps containers in order to ensure compliance with medical waste management best practices.
About sharps, and why proper management and disposal is essential
The basic rule of thumb is that any item that has been in contact with blood or other potentially hazardous body fluids and also has the potential to puncture or lacerate the skin goes into the sharps waste stream. These items are considered biohazardous material, posing a health concern. That’s because they have the potential to transmit any blood-borne pathogens they may be contaminated with, should they penetrate the skin. Exposure to blood-borne pathogens can result in the development of diseases, including Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, HIV, Malaria, Staph infections, and West Nile disease, among others.
For this reason, careful management of sharps waste is essential to avoid injury and illness. Clearly, healthcare workers are at highest risk from these materials, due to the large volume of these items that they typically handle on an everyday basis, but the concern over sharps injury extends far beyond the exam room or hospital bedside. Anyone who handles medical waste is also at risk, and should these items be disposed of incorrectly, they can also become a hazard to the general public.
Besides needles, what should go in sharps containers
Sharps waste covers a lot more territory than just hypodermic needles and the syringes to which they are mounted. Other items that need to be disposed of in the sharps waste stream include:
- IV catheters
- Disposable scalpels
- Utility knives
- Auto-injecting pens
- Broken glass
- Glass vaccine or medication vials
- Glass pipettes
- Disposable suture kits
- Microscope slides
This list of what is considered sharps waste is not all-inclusive, but does cover the most common items that are considered sharps waste in the average healthcare environment. As stated above, any item that is sharp enough to penetrate the skin and has been exposed to blood or other bodily fluids should be placed in sharps containers for safety.
A few more important details about sharps containers
Of course, if you’re an office manager or practice manager in the healthcare field, you are familiar with the appearance of the FDA-approved sharps containers that healthcare workers are required to use as they work with patients. They are generally bright red, and are clearly marked with a biohazard warning. They are made of thick, strong plastic to ensure that they are resistant to punctures and leaks, and generally have self-locking lids. The reason they are required is that these containers are very effective in minimizing risk of sharps injuries – provided they are used properly.
Among the most important things to know about proper use of sharps containers is that the “fill line” marked on the container is there for an important reason; overfilling them can lead to injury. This line is usually about two-thirds of the way up the side of the container, ensuring that workers have ample room to just drop sharps in, rather than pushing or forcing them in. Another crucial thing to know to minimize risk is that once an item goes into a sharps container, it should stay there. Workers should never try to retrieve anything from those containers. Finally, hypodermic needles should never be recapped before being placed in sharps containers. This mistake is a leading cause of needle-stick injuries in healthcare.