Posted on October 10, 2017

How do medical waste flu season regulations differ from disposal rules at other times? There are a few key differences. Though year-round regulations still apply during flu months, there’s generally more waste generated during flu season. That can mean harried employees are more likely to make mistakes. It can also call for larger containers and a more frequent ordering and disposal schedule. Finally, workers confused over how to dispose of non-medical waste like disposable tissues can clog biohazard bins.

2017-2018 may be shaping up as the worst flu season in a decade. That’s according to Australia’s already peaked season, which has seen over 160,000 cases so far. Compare that to the 90,000 cases typically seen by the country. Since officials often use Australia’s flu season to predict the severity of flu in the U.S., we may be in for a nasty knock stateside.

1. What Are the Rules for Medical Waste During Flu Season?

The EPA, HHS, and CDC rules for general medical waste handling still apply during flu season. In general, biohazardous waste disposal during flu follows the same rules and regulations as regular, non-flu waste. There are a few key points to clear up:

  • HHS doesn’t classify disposable tissues used by flu patients as regulated medical waste.
  • When handling or emptying open waste containers during flu season, use PPE (gloves) and wash hands.
  • Follow standard medical waste containment and treatment rules during flu season. That means containering, labeling, and treatment of medical waste follows the same guidelines as usual.

2. Are Face Masks, Gowns, and Flu-Contaminated Tissues Medical Waste?

There may be some confusion over what to do with items used to contain sneezes or coughs during flu season. These may include face masks (surgical masks) or disposable tissues used by flu patients. According to the EPA, masks and disposable tissues are both considered routine solid waste. That is, they’re not considered regulated medical waste. Health care workers should dispose of both materials as everyday solid waste. Disposable tissues used by flu patients can be sent to solid waste landfills untreated, barring specific state or local regulations to the contrary.

3. Wash Hands After Handling Even Non-Medical Waste

Because Kleenex or other disposable tissues used by flu patients aren’t considered medical waste, special care should be used with the regular trash. During flu season, wash hands after emptying regular waste receptacles and medical waste containers. Use PPE such as gloves when emptying regular trash cans.

4. Use Larger Containers for Medical Waste Disposal in Flu Season

In general, facilities can expect more medical waste during flu season thanks to a higher volume of patients. Clinics, emergency rooms, and private practices all tend to see more business during flu season than at other times of the year. This means more medical waste in general, so organizations can prep for the season by ordering larger waste containers on a more frequent schedule than usual. This includes bigger sharps containers to accommodate flu vaccine needles and IV needles.

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5. Follow Standard Medical Waste Rules for Flu Season

In general, standard guidelines set forth by HHS, EPA, and the CDC for handling medical waste apply during flu season. That means waste containment rules remain the same. A single bag lining still works for ordinary clinic waste. Regulated medical waste should be labeled appropriately and contained in the usual receptacles. The same rules for handling, transporting, and treating medical waste still apply.

6. Put Bins in More Convenient Locations During Flu Season

Convenient location of medical waste containers is a year-round concern. That said, in flu season, waste bins tend to fill up faster. With busier health care staff comes a greater risk that a rushed employee will toss medical waste in the regular trash. Set employees up for success by making sure medical waste disposal containers are in easy reach, especially during flu season. Containers kept emptied and ready at the point of use ensure a higher likelihood of use by health care workers.

7. Put Covers on Non-Medical Waste Bins

Regular waste bins near medical waste containers can be kept covered during flu season. The idea is to make it less convenient for employees to toss medical waste into non-medical trash. There’s some controversy around this solution, since the volume of non-medical waste like disposable tissues also increases during flu season.

8. Make Medical Waste Disposal Bi (or Tri) Lingual

During flu season, the key medical waste idea is convenience, convenience, convenience. Med waste containers labeled in English, Spanish, Chinese, and other common U.S. languages help cut down confusion during high traffic times. Facilities should take the time to learn the most common languages used by their employees, then make sure all waste containers are labeled accordingly.

9. Color Code to Stop Medical Waste Abuse

Color coding is another convenience issue for medical waste flu season concerns. While color-coding of waste is standard practice year round, it’s particularly important during flu season. That’s thanks to a higher volume of patients and waste during flu, and the risk of filling up medical waste containers with non-regulated waste like disposable tissues. Clearly-marked, color coded receptacles are less likely to be confused with non-regulated trash.

10. How to Dispose of Unused Flu Vaccines

In general, HHS advises providers to check manufacturer instructions for how to dispose of unused flu vaccines. For the 2017-2018 flu season, manufacturers include Merck, Sanofi, and GSK, among others. However, since most flu vaccine instructions don’t list specific disposal instructions, it may be necessary to contact the manufacturer directly. Here’s a short list of flu vaccine manufacturers and contact info in 2017-2018:

  • Merck: 800-444-2080
  • GSK: 888-825-5249
  • Sanofi Pasteur: 800-822-2463
  • Johnson & Johnson: 800-526-3967
  • Pfizer: 800-879-3477

Conclusion

In general, health care workers can dispose of medical waste during flu season the same way they do at other times of year. That said, a higher volume of waste during flu months creates busier staff. That means more chances for mistakes. For that reason, make sure the regular handling and disposal of medical waste is as convenient as possible at your facility. You may also want to order larger containers, and instruct staff on the proper disposal of non-regulated waste, such as disposable tissues.

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