Exposure to Infectious Waste


     The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has created an incredible number of standards and regulations in order to protect healthcare workers from unnecessary exposure to potentially infectious materials. In 1991, OSHA created the Occupational Exposure to Bloodborne Pathogens Standard. This standard defines regulated medical waste and clarifies basic rules for its disposal.


Regulated Medical Waste Defined

     The term “regulated medical waste” is defined by OSHA to pertain to the following categories:

  • liquid or semi-liquid blood or other potentially infectious materials (OPIM);

  • items contaminated with blood or OPIM and which would release these substances in a liquid or semi-liquid state if compressed;

  • items that are caked with dried blood or OPIM and are capable of releasing these materials during handling;

  • contaminated sharps; and

  • pathological and microbiological wastes containing blood or OPIM

     Regulated medical waste runs the risk of being infectious to anyone who comes into contact with it. The types of medical waste that the states commonly regulate are as follows:

  • Pathological waste. Tissues, organs, body parts, and body fluids removed during surgery and autopsy.

  • Human blood and blood products. Waste blood, serum, plasma and blood products.

  • Cultures and stocks of infectious agents (microbiological waste). Specimens from medical and pathology laboratories. Includes culture dishes and devices used to transfer, inoculate, and mix. Also includes discarded live and attenuated vaccines.

  • Contaminated sharps. Contaminated hypodermic needles, syringes, scalpel blades, Pasteur pipettes, and broken glass.

  • Isolation waste. Generated by hospitalized patients isolated to protect others from communicable disease.

  • Contaminated animal carcasses, body parts and bedding. From animals intentionally exposed to pathogens in research, biologicals production, or in vivo pharmaceuticals testing.


Disposing of Regulated Medical Waste

     OSHA has also clearly defined requirements for the disposal of regulated medical waste. Containers must be:

  • Closable;

  • Constructed to contain all contents and prevent leakage of fluids during handling, storage, transport or shipping;

  • Labeled or color-coded in accordance with the standard; and

  • Closed prior to removal to prevent spillage or protrusion of contents during handling, storage, transport, or shipping.

  • If outside contamination of the regulated waste container occurs, it must be placed in a second container meeting the above standards.

     The labeling of these containers is regulated as well, with OSHA requiring the universal biohazard symbol followed by the term “biohazard” be prominently displayed on any container holding regulated medical waste. That label must be affixed to the container in a way that prevents its removal. However, labeling is not required for:

  • Regulated waste that has been decontaminated.

  • Containers of blood, blood components, and blood products bearing an FDA required label that have been released for transfusion or other clinical uses.

  • Individual containers of blood or OPIM that are placed in secondary labeled containers during storage, transport, shipment, or disposal.

  • Specimen containers, if the facility uses Universal Precautions when handling all specimens, the containers are recognizable as containing specimens, and the containers remain within the facility. *(see note below concerning specimen bags)

  • Laundry bags or containers, containing contaminated laundry, may be marked with an alternative label or color-coded provided the facility uses Universal Precautions for handling all soiled laundry and the alternative marking permits all employees to recognize the containers as requiring compliance with Universal Precautions. If contaminated laundry is sent off-site for cleaning to a facility which does not use Universal Precautions in the handling of all soiled laundry, it must be placed in a bag or container which is red in color or labeled with the biohazard label described above.

     Regulated medical waste is clearly defined by OSHA’s Occupational Exposure to Bloodborne Pathogens Standard. Additionally, this standard stringently regulates the disposal of that medical waste, in order to prevent healthcare workers from unnecessarily coming into contact with potentially infectious materials. You can find low cost and convenient disposal methods HERE.