Q&A on Lab Waste Management

By Dan Scungio, MT (ASCP), SLS, CQA (ASQ)  bio

Understanding the proper separation and disposal of the various waste types generated in the lab setting is an important piece of managing the overall laboratory safety program. Educating staff about trash segregation, storage and packaging requirements, and providing required training can prevent unwanted exposures, environmental mishaps, and even fines. As a lab safety consultant, I receive multiple questions about the handling of lab waste. Here we will highlight a few of them that have been asked often.

Can unused specimen transport bags be disposed of into regular trash containers if they have a biohazard label on them?

In many states the requirement is that any item (clean or dirty) that contains a biohazard symbol must be placed into containers of regulated medical waste (RMW). Check with your local RMW vendor or your facility Infection Control practitioner to see what the locals allow in your area. Some vendors make transport bags with perforations which, when ripped, tear the biohazard symbol in half. While this solution may seem like a good one, I would still recommend checking to see if it is acceptable to dispose of these partial-symbols into a regular waste landfill as well.

For this issue, staff training on proper waste segregation is crucial. Mistakes made here can lead to items potentially causing environmental contamination, unintended injury or exposure to waste handlers, and fines against the laboratory.

Is it acceptable to store chemical waste in a Satellite Accumulation Area (SAA) that is down the hall from where the waste was generated?

The Environmental Protection Agency is very precise about hazardous (chemical) waste storage and handling, and state branches of the EPA use the same interpretation of the regulations. The movement of waste in a laboratory is highly regulated. If you intend to store waste in a SAA, it must be stored at or near the point of its generation, and you may never move waste from one SAA to another. It can only be moved to a Central Accumulation Area (CAA) or to the waste hauler’s vehicle. Waste stored in a SAA must be stored within the line of sight from where it was generated. That means it cannot be stored in another room down the hallway or even around the corner. Choosing the location of the laboratory SAA(s) can take careful consideration because of those specific storage regulations.

Where can I find regulations regarding sharps containers in the laboratory?

OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens standard, published in 1990, contains regulations about the proper selection and use of sharps containers. Sharps containers must be puncture-resistant, leak-proof, and they must always have a lid on them. Containers should be prevented from tipping, and they should be replaced once they are ¾ full. It is acceptable to utilize reusable sharps containers, but the same regulations apply.

Make sure staff pay close attention when it comes to sharps safety. An injury from a sharps container usually means the incident must be treated as an exposure from an unknown source. That requires a complicated follow-up for the exposed individual, and the medication needed can be very unpleasant to tolerate.

In the laboratory there can be multiple waste streams, and each one has its own set of regulations for handling, storage, and transport. Here we have touched on regular trash, regulated medical waste, and hazardous waste. Your lab may also deal with universal waste (such as batteries and fluorescent bulbs), radioactive wastes, and even mixed waste. Be sure you understand the regulations regarding the oversight of all of your waste streams, and make waste management an important part of your overall lab safety program.