The COVID-19 pandemic has put every support service in the healthcare system under immense strain, including healthcare risk waste management. Treating COVID-19 patients safely means staff must wear extensive personal protection equipment, which must be disposed of at the end of each shift, sometimes more frequently. Although during the first wave of the pandemic, non-essential procedures were stopped, the autumn and winter of 2020 saw huge numbers of COVID-19 patients combined with many non-COVID-19 patients, creating an enormous volume of potentially infectious waste to be disposed of safely. The vaccination programme has in turn generated very large volumes of sharps and other healthcare waste.
The additional volume of waste has highlighted the benefits of effective training for all staff in settings where waste is created. New policies were introduced to manage COVID-19 waste safely in hospitals and surgeries, with huge emphasis on the correct segregation of waste in the light of the pandemic. What has become clear, however, was that in some situations hard-pressed staff treated all waste as infectious, when the guidelines set out how it should continue to be segregated into infectious and non-infectious waste.
Ensuring the maximum amount of waste is appropriately, safely classified as non-infectious minimises the health service’s environmental impact and contributes to its aim of reducing its carbon emissions.
What has become clear is that good training of staff at all levels means that, even under extremely stressful conditions such as during the COVID-19 pandemic, the health service can continue to segregate waste appropriately and safely, minimising the costs and carbon emissions involved in its waste disposal. Hospitals, community health organisations and other settings where healthcare risk waste is produced should ensure all staff likely to be dealing with waste – which means almost all staff – have the latest training. E-learning is an increasingly popular means of delivering such training, and Stericycle has developed a CPD-accredited, hour-long online training programme providing the vital skills, knowledge and confidence that are required to manage waste safely, even in a pandemic.
Our experience shows that in the very difficult circumstances created by COVID-19, good training of all relevant staff is vital to ensure they follow correct practice. Training is most important during the toughest times.