Waste and recycling workers may often come across syringe needles during the course of their work. They have been found in every conceivable place from black bags to cigarette packets and lift shafts to children’s playgrounds. Accidental injuries involving discarded needles – often called sharps or needlestick injuries – are common. And health and safety (H&S) regulations make it a legal requirement for employers to assess risks and implement measures to protect employees.

The major risk from needlestick injuries is contracting a blood-borne virus such as hepatitis or HIV. The risk of infection depends on whether the needle user was infected with hepatitis or HIV, how infective the material is, and how much infected material enters the bloodstream. A needle attached to a syringe containing blood is likely to be a higher risk than a detached needle. There may also be a risk of tetanus.

Risk assessment means looking for hazards and controlling the risks involved in the work that you do. Companies should decide whether existing precautions are adequate or if more should be done. Discussing H&S issues with staff and safety representatives often pays dividends because they know what goes on during collections, and can help develop practical solutions to problems. A reporting system will help you gain a true picture of the problem and identify the places where the risks are greatest. Employers should also determine which employees, and which roles, have the greatest risk of injury.

Plan for greatest risk

All found needles should be viewed as though they are infected and risk will need to be managed in all instances. Employees who service areas used by the general public such as refuse/recycling collectors, loaders or street sweepers, may be at risk. The introduction of sharp-resistant containers, such as wheelie bins, to replace plastic sacks on domestic rounds can reduce sharps injuries to collectors.

Suitable gloves should always be used when using tools to move needles. Gloves should be selected to give a high degree of puncture resistance. They should not be relied upon to give adequate protection on their own, but used as secondary protection in the case of accidental contact or puncture wounds. Legs and arms are vulnerable when carrying bags to or throwing bags into collection vehicles. Suitable puncture- or cut-resistant clothing to protect limbs may be advisable.

Tools for the job

Giving employees the right tools – pincer tools, tongs, tweezers and dustpan and hand brush – and ensuring they know how to use them correctly, will help reduce the number of injuries. If a needlestick injury does occur, adequate first aid equipment should be easily accessible. Some organisations offer immunisation against hepatitis A and B, and tetanus. But there is no immunisation against some strains of hepatitis or against HIV.

Employees and line management should be trained in what to do if they find needles, and understand the risks involved and your reporting procedures. Sharps should be disposed of in an appropriate, secure container – a sharps box – which, in turn, should be disposed of in a safe manner. Specialist hazardous waste companies collect and dispose of sharps bins routinely or by appointment. Your sharps policy should set out your procedure together with relevant contact details.

This article was taken from HSE guidance. For full guidelines, go to www.hse.gov.uk/waste/needles.htm

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