Safe disposal of medical waste

Nursing students have helped reduce the public health risks from unsafe disposal of "sharps".

Back in 2016, twelve second year Nursing students investigated health issues in the Dunedin suburb of Green Island. This catchment including the city's landfill, and the students learned that waste management company staff suffered on average 11 injuries per month from sharp objects that had been improperly disposed of in Dunedin's waste.

Three of the students, Hannah Beadle, Rebecca Bates and Tessa Dawson chose this issue to investigate further, under supervision from Principal Lecturer Josie Crawley. The students applied the Ottawa Charter, which identifies five areas for action to ensure that all causes and obstacles are considered and addressed in public health policy. They found from their enquiries that:

  • Diabetics and others who are prescribed medication to be injected, or are required to test their own blood, are not consistently given information about how to safely dispose of the sharps (needles and lancets) which they use.
  • These patients needed to go somewhere other than their pharmacy to purchase a container for safe disposal of sharps, and then pay again for disposal of the container once it was full.
  • At that time illegal drug users had easier and cheaper access to safe disposal methods for their needles than those using prescribed medicines.
  • The District Health Board was legally responsible to ensure that safe disposal of sharps was available through pharmacies and/or GPs.

The student team considered a range of possible actions which would help ensure sharps were safely disposed of. They also provided a copy of their report to Catherine Gladhill, Waste Minimisation Officer at the Dunedin City Council. Catherine welcomed the report as she was aware of the issue with injuries and hence the need for safe disposal of sharps. She liaised with Greg Sheffield at the Southern District Health Board about how they might fulfil their responsibility. 

As a result funding was secured for pharmacies to provide the safe disposal containers to patients, along with advice about using the containers and bringing them back when full for safe disposal - all at no cost to the patients. A letter to all 83 pharmacies in the Southern region resulted in initial take-up of this service in 2016 by 17 pharmacies. Now in 2018 70 pharmacies are offering this free service. This initiative, together with other changes in waste handling that have been put in place, has reduced the number of sharps injuries for waste management employees to zero.

Image credit: The US Food and Drug Administration

July 2018