Written by Amy Piser
23 Mar 2022

What Is Sharps Waste?

When speaking of sharps in a healthcare environment, some people may only identify an image of a needle and the red containers that used needles and syringes usually go in. However, a “sharp” is broadly defined as anything that has a sharp edge to it. Such objects are even more dangerous if they come into contact with blood, an infectious bodily fluid, or if they are handled by the unsuspecting public.  



1 / What is a “Sharp?”

2 / When does a sharp become medical waste? 

3 / Dealing with Sharps Waste 

4 / Finding guidelines for sharps disposal processes 

5 / Use Compliant Sharps Containers 

6 / Daniels Health Focus on Safety 

What is a “Sharp?” 

In addition to needles, objects that are defined as “sharps” include: 

  • Trocars 
  • Empty or broken ampoules 
  • Broken, rigid plastic 
  • Butterflies 
  • Suture needles 
  • Culture slides and dishes 
  • Broken glass 

Individuals working in an environment or other scenario outside of a hospital setting where needles, sharp tools, or equipment can be found should be aware of the rules and regulations regarding their handling and disposal. That includes cosmetic surgical centers, tattoo parlors, body piercing businesses, and funeral homes. 

This is even more important when any sharp object has come into contact with potentially contaminated or infected blood, body fluids, or a substance that can carry bacterial or viral dangers to the general public. Such items are deemed dangerous waste and would be defined as infectious/biohazardous. 

Federal regulations are clear in regard to healthcare waste management and medical waste disposal processes for sharps. Individual states also have unique guidelines that build upon federal regulations. Some state regulations are even more stringent than those provided by the federal government. Proper handling and disposal is essential to maintain compliance and to protect healthcare providers, the general public, and the environment. 

When does a sharp become medical waste? 

Dangers associated with improper sharps disposal are severe. It is vital that all healthcare providers who utilize sharps in the course of their procedures or business practices know how to identify sharps and determine whether they might be contaminated. When exactly does a sharp become medical waste? As mentioned, a medical sharp encompasses anything that has the potential to pierce, poke, impale, scrape, or cut the skin that is possibly contaminated with bodily fluids, per OSHA.  Many dangers are associated with improper sharps disposal, and needlestick injuries are listed among the most prevalent. Despite advances, needlestick injuries can result in HIV infection or exposure to Hepatitis B (HBV) and Hepatitis C (HCV) infections. 

In November 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act. A number of new requirements have been added over the years to provide protection to healthcare workers and the public. Some technological advancements include the use of engineering controls in regard to needle-less systems, enhanced OSHA recordkeeping requirements, sharps injury laws, and employee comments and feedback on use of safer medical devices and other technologies that reduce exposure to needlestick injuries. 

According to data provided by the CDC in 2018 and 2019, devices most commonly involved in a sharps injury continue to be disposable hypodermic syringes and suture needles. Safer and newer technologies are currently being explored to aid in the reduction of further injury. Increasingly common sharps injury prevention features such as retracting or shielded needles and blades have been devised, but despite widespread availability, they are not used in many instances.  

Preventing needlestick injuries is a primary focus of sharps safety protocols, but so too is proper disposal of sharps waste. 

Dealing with Sharps Waste 

Governmental agencies such as the EPA and OSHA provide specific standards for proper segregation and use of sharps containers and storage, as well as disposal recommendations for sharps waste. 

Recommendations include the following (note that this is not a comprehensive list): 

  • Be educated and knowledgeable about proper sharps container usage and placement. Sharps containers must be FDA-approved for compliance. It’s also important to know and understand OSHA regulations as well as state-by-state guidelines for not only placement of sharps containers in a variety of scenarios, but processes involved in sharps container removal prior to disposal. 
  • Prior to disposal, sharps containers must be sealed. This reduces the risk of a needlestick injury by personnel removing the sharps container. This also keeps handlers safe during transportation and disposal processes that are approved on a state-by-state basis. 
  • Every sharps container must be properly labeled and identified based not only on federal guidelines provided by the EPA, but by the state and sometimes even local municipalities. 

Finding guidelines for sharps disposal processes 

Sharps compliance refers to the proper disposal of used sharps in a sharps container according to federal, state, and local community guidelines. Numerous governmental agencies and publications are readily available for access to information and guidelines in regard to sharps waste, handling, storage, transportation and disposal. Such agencies and publications include (but are not limited to): 

  • OSHA specifies bloodborne pathogen standards (via 29 CFR 1910.1030). Every state also provides guidelines that must follow OSHA standards. Many state guidelines exceed those provided by OSHA. 
  • The Federal Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act offers pertinent guidelines and processes in an effort to reduce occupational exposure to needlestick injury and provides information regarding compliant measures, procedures, and documentation standards for healthcare environments to prevent sharps injury. 
  • State-specific provisions in regard to legislation of needle safety can be found on the website of the CDC and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). 

Use Compliant Sharps Containers 

Guidelines for regulated medical waste provide instructions regarding compliant sharps containers. This information can be found in 49 CFR §173.197 – Regulated Medical Waste. The wording is clear: “Sharps transported in a large packaging, cart, or BOP [bulk outer packaging] must be packaged in a puncture resistant, non-bulk inner packaging (sharps container). Each sharps container must be securely closed to prevent leaks or punctures in conformance with instructions provided by the packaging manufacturer.” 

Note: Special guidelines apply for containers exceeding 20 gallons (76 L) in volume. 

The US FDA provides a clear definition of a compliant sharps container, which states that it must be made from “rigid plastic and come marked with a line that indicates when the container should be considered full, which means it’s time to dispose of the container.” 

Guidelines are also provided for private, homeowner disposal of sharps. In such cases, sharps containers must be constructed of heavy-duty plastic, have a tight-fitting lid, be stable, stand upright during their use, be disposed of when they are approximately three-quarters full, and adhere to community guidelines for compliant disposal methods. 

Daniels Health Focus on Safety 

Daniels Health is dedicated to reducing the potential of sharps or needlestick injuries. We design compliant sharps containers and recommend furthering safety by placing compliant sharps containers in patient rooms, surgical suites, and throughout healthcare facilities to further reduce risks of sharps injury. For more information on Daniels Health products, services, and guidance, call us today.  



Header Style: 
Amy Piser

Amy Piser

Clinical Waste Educator

With 26 years experience working in healthcare, Amy has implemented sustainability initiatives for over 100 hospitals across the United States and brings unique practice and compliance expertise to healthcare waste management.