Healthcare waste is waste generated by hospitals, biomedical research facilities, medical laboratories, mortuaries, nursing homes and other healthcare facilities. When the waste is not properly managed or disposed of, it can have serious health and environmental consequences for staff, patients and the local community.
On the other hand, safe and effective waste management can help protect communities from injury and disease and improve the reputation of your hospital or health facility. Training and education about proper waste management is crucial for every person working in a healthcare facility.
Benefits of proper health waste management
Safe and sustainable health waste management is crucial for all healthcare facilities in Australia. When done properly, it has benefits for healthcare workers and other staff members, patients and visitors as well as the surrounding community at large.
Proper health waste management:
- Reduces risk of injury to healthcare staff and patients, for example injury from sharp implements.
- Prevents the spread of infection and reduces the occurrence of hospital acquired infections.
- Protects public health directly by preventing exposure to harmful substances and indirectly by protecting the environment.
- Ensures the healthcare facility meets local and national health and safety regulations.
- Improves sustainability measures and reduces impact on the local environment.
- Streamlines organisational processes and improves efficiency.
- Contributes to a more positive brand image for your hospital, clinic or health facility.
Types of healthcare waste
There are many different types of waste that healthcare facilities produce. According to the World Health Organisation, healthcare waste can be classified in the following categories:
- Sharps waste – needles, syringes, blades and other sharp items.
- Infectious waste – including waste from patients with infections, equipment contaminated by blood and bodily fluids and clinical stocks of infectious agents.
- Pathological waste – human and animal tissue, organs and body parts.
- Hazardous chemical waste – including chemicals used in laboratories, disinfectants and heavy metals found in medical equipment.
- Pharmaceutical waste – expired or damaged medication.
- Radioactive waste – waste containing radioactive elements such as radioactive diagnostic materials.
- Cytotoxic waste – genotoxic waste such as cytotoxic drugs used for treating cancer.
- General non-hazardous waste – general waste that doesn’t pose a chemical, physical, radioactive or biological hazard.
Why is waste segregation important?
Waste segregation is the process of separating hazardous types of waste from non-hazardous waste so that they can be treated separately. When waste is not separated properly, it can result in two suboptimal outcomes:
- All of the waste is sent for treatment, which results in using unnecessary amounts of energy and resources.
- All of the waste is sent to landfill or disposed of as general waste. Hazardous waste that is not treated properly can have serious public health and environmental consequences.
The segregation of medical waste greatly reduces the amount of waste that needs to be treated with specialised processes, which can lower the cost of waste management for healthcare facilities. Waste segregation also reduces the amount of energy and resources required for waste treatment processing, making it a more environmentally sustainable practice.
Labelling and packaging of medical waste
All medical waste bins should be correctly packaged, labelled and colour coded for safe identification and handling. If the waste is not going to be incinerated, animal and human waste and pharmaceutical waste should be separated before treatment.
Waste that is stored on site should be kept in a dedicated storage area to reduce the environmental impact. Waste containers and garbage bins may need to be placed on trays with sufficient side height to catch any spills.
Cytotoxic waste storage
Cytotoxic waste is one of the most dangerous forms of healthcare waste. It can cause allergic reactions, irritation to human tissue and can impair or kill cells. Cytotoxic waste should be stored in a puncture resistant, leak proof container with the correct purple labelling. All cytotoxic waste, including contaminated sharps, should be separated from other types of waste.
Sharps that are not disposed of correctly increase the risk of reuse, infection and injury. Needles, syringes and blades should be disposed of in rigid, puncture-proof containers and segregated from other waste materials. Sharps containers should be correctly labelled and colour coded yellow according to Australian regulations. An adequate number of sharps containers placed strategically throughout the health facility can significantly reduce the risks associated with sharps waste.
Disposal of human waste
Human waste, including bodily fluids, tissue, organs and amputated parts can carry pathogens and increase the risk of infection when not disposed of correctly. Bodily fluids and contaminated items should be cleaned up with a body fluid clean up kit or biohazard spill kit and correctly disposed of.
Incineration and alternatives
Incineration is a widely practised form of waste disposal, however inadequate incineration and incineration of particular types of waste can release pollution into the atmosphere. For example, materials treated with chlorine can generate human carcinogens when incinerated.
Alternatives to incineration include steaming, autoclaving and microwaving. These processes produce less hazardous emissions and may be a more environmentally sound option for hospitals and health clinics.
Safe waste management is crucial
Every hospital and health facility has particular needs, risks and protocols when it comes to waste management. It’s important to implement solutions which are most effective and efficient for the particular setting.
The producer of the waste is responsible for safely disposing, treating and managing waste to protect employees, patients and the local community. Implementing safe waste management strategies can have long lasting benefits for the healthcare facility, patients and surrounding community.