Medical waste must be collected and stored prior to treatment in a way that reduces the possibility of interaction with humans, animals, or the environment. Medical waste containers are generally red, contain the word “biohazard” and are imprinted with the universal three-sided biohazard symbol, which was developed by Dow Chemical in the 1960s. This standardization immediately identifies these containers as medical waste. General storage guidelines mandated by OSHA include the following:
- Contaminated reusable sharps must be placed in containers that are puncture resistant, closeable, puncture resistant, leakproof on sides and bottoms, and labeled or color coded,
- Reusable sharps that are contaminated with blood or other potentially infectious materials must not be stored or processed in a manner that requires employees to reach by hand into the containers,
- Specimens of blood or other potentially infectious material are required to be placed in a container that is labeled and color coded and closed prior to being stored, transported or shipped,
- Regulated wastes (liquid or semi-liquid) must be placed in containers that are constructed to contain all contents and prevent leakage of fluids, labeled or color coded, and closed prior to removal,
- All bins, pails, cans, and similar receptacles intended for reuse are required to be inspected and decontaminated on a regularly scheduled basis,
- Labels must include the biohazard symbol, be fluorescent orange or orange-red or predominantly so, with lettering and symbols in contrasting color, and affixed as closely as possible to the container by adhesive or wire to prevent loss or removal.
The most visible form of medical waste collection is the sharps container. Sharps containers are found in every medical office, and often in public places, for medical personnel and the general public to safely dispose of hypodermic needles.
These containers are designed so the user is never exposed to any of the sharps already in the container, eliminating the possibility of contact or puncture by any of the used needles. Sharps containers are generally made of thick plastic, and have a door that opens and the user can insert the sharp into the container. When the door is closed, the sharp is dropped down into the main chamber of the container. The container functions much like a standard post office mailbox, in that the user cannot reach the sharps inside the container via the door. Sharps containers are also used for other categories of sharps, including scalpels and lancets.
Sharps containers are found in public locations, and can also be used by private individuals who use sharps in the home, such as diabetics who require regular injections of insulin. For home users, a sharps container is provided by a private disposal company. When the individual fills the container, the container is then mailed to the private disposal company for disinfection and destruction prior to disposal.
Other forms of medical waste containers include 55-gallon drums for larger volumes of waste, and thick plastic bags that resist puncture. State regulations generally dictate the maximum amount of time that medical waste can be stored prior to treatment. For example, in the state of New York, storage of regulated medical waste is limited to seven days. Medical waste must be stored separately from standard waste, without possibility of the two waste types mixing. All reusable storage containers must be disinfected after they have been emptied, unless they employ a disposable liner that is removed with the waste.
Note the workplace safety rules should always be followed with medical waste, and there are cases of workers getting sick, including with tuberculosis, from contact with waste.