Hypodermic needles and biologically contaminated sharps like razor blades can pose serious health hazards to workers at recycling facilities because they can hide among household recyclables or fall between the seats of scrapped vehicles.

While data currently is lacking on how much of a risk this poses to recyclers and MRF operators, the risk may vary depending on what materials a facility handles or how much direct contact a worker has with certain kinds of scrap.

In an industry-wide effort to help recyclers mitigate those risks, ISRI and its members have developed specific guidelines for this eventuality. Among the top suggestions is to make sure employees always have the right PPE available, such as puncture-resistant gloves, according to ISRI’s Sharps and Needle Protocol guidance document. Other risk-mitigation suggestions for recyclers and MRF operators include:

  • Providing annual training on bloodborne pathogens and develop procedures for the correct way to safely pick up and dispose of needles.
  • Providing FDA-approved sharps disposal containers.

The document also aims to help employers react correctly if a worker experiences a needlestick incident.

“If it hasn’t happened at your facility before, it can be scary and folks may not know what to do,” says Tony Smith, ISRI’s vice president of safety.

The affected employee should wash the wound with lots of soap and water and should be evaluated at a hospital emergency room or clinic as soon as possible after exposure occurs. The employee should visit a medical professional that has expertise in needle stick exposure protocols, according to the ISRI guidance document.

As part of implementing the Smith says recyclers should conduct a risk assessment to determine where and how workers might come in contact with needles or sharps. Smith says some common areas for exposure include sorting lines, especially if the facility handles containers like cans or bottles, which are common receptacles where people store used needles. Recyclers that shred cars should watch out for needles hidden between the seats.

But along with educating recyclers about how to react to needles and sharps in the scrap pile, Smith says it’s important to raise awareness broadly and around the country about the correct way to dispose of needles.

The main reason these needles and sharps show up at scrapyards and MRFs is because “people are not always disposing of them responsibly,” he says.

Physicians sometimes direct patients to dispose of needles inside sealed beverage bottles or other receptacles not designed for sharps, and people may not realize that their used needles might harm a recycler or waste hauler, he says.

The Food and Drug Administration, which has issued guidance on how best to dispose of sharps, says the best place to store used sharps is in an FDA-approved container made of puncture-resistant, leak-resistant plastic, often available at pharmacies or through medical supply websites.

A “ plastic household container, such as a laundry detergent container, can be used as an alternative,” the FDA says — but that container should not be placed in the household trash or recycling because it can put waste haulers, recyclers, and household members at risk.

“People should be taking them to their medical provider, who has the proper tools for disposal, or they should have biohazard kits,” Smith says.