Sharps injuries in the recycling industries

We tend to thing of sharps injury as a hazard largely particular to healthcare professionals and the clinical waste sector but there are ongoing problems in the recycling industries and on their picking lines.

A sharps injury is just that. There is no reason to dismiss any cut or penetrating injury as a trivial injury, and it must never be considered as ‘just one of those things’. If injury is caused by some contaminated object, or is deep and ragged and caused by a nasty jagged tin can, or caused nerve, joint or tendon damage, the injury and its consequences may take weeks or even months to resolve. A permanent disability is not uncommon, and loss of function of a hand is enough to destroy the ability to work and change a persons life forever.

Infection is our greatest concern. Those infections might be caused by any bug, not only the Hepatitis and HIV viruses which are out greatest concern. But bloodborne virus infection is a real concern and discarded needles are not uncommon on pick lines from domestic or community recycling and recovery operations. Loose needles, syringes discarded with plastics waste, needles hidden in drinks cans, even entire sharps containers bounce past the pickers and inevitably bring the line to a standstill until everything is cleared and checked.

Needle-related sharps injuries are common though there is as yet no authoritative estimate of frequency. All this passes largely unnoticed. It is a social and educational problem that is the bane of recycle operators, but that does not mean that it should escape regulation and enforcement. I am not aware of any such case in the UK, but the US Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administrationhas recently issued Greenstar Mid-America LLC 10 serious and 10 other-than-serious citations after an inspection found that workers processing trash were not protected against hypodermic needle sticks and other hazards at the company’s facility in San Antonio. Proposed penalties total $53,000.

There is no reason to expect that companies operating recycling and resource recovery operations for Local Authorities can do much about the content of their incoming waste streams. Domestic recyclables and waste from street cleansing etc must be sorted but there are hugely sophisticated mechanised systems to allow hands-free sorting.  Local Authorities must ensure that wastes collected from areas prone to the accumulation of drug litter do not find their way to picking lines as the hazards are considerable and safety of those working on the picking line will inevitablybe jeopardised.

The high capital investment required for automated systems makes a hand picking line almost inevitable for all but the largest operations. That is no reason not to provide adequate PPE items to staff, who should wear suitable cut- and sharps-resistant gloves or gauntlets. They must be trained and properly supervised to make sure that these are worn at all times, and disciplined in the event of any breach of that simple rule.

When inspected by regulators, operators must be assessed for their compliance with safety requirements, that must be central to licensing of the entire operation. Though this can make no difference to incoming wastes, the incidence of sharps injury will surely fall.

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