The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the California Department of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) have issued various guidance regarding potential workplace hazards resulting from exposure to COVID-19 (see our recent client alert for more information). Most recently, on April 3, 2020, OSHA issued enforcement guidance to all industries indicating that respiratory protection certified by certain non-U.S. jurisdictions may be used as mandatory or voluntary personal protective equipment (PPE) in the workplace where masks approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health were not available (https://www.osha.gov/memos/2020-04-03/enforcement-guidance-use-respiratory-protection-equipment-certified-under).
This guidance was issued in conjunction with similar announcements from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommending the use of face masks by the general population and expanding approvals of certain masks from foreign jurisdictions for use by health care personnel, respectively. As these three announcements are likely to significantly expand the use of respiratory protection in the workplace, one area where many “nonmedical” employers may seek advice is how to safely dispose of PPE, for example, gloves and face masks that were used in the workplace and that may have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus. Specifically, once an employee uses such PPE, is it considered “medical waste,” or can it go out with the regular trash?
At this time, the simplest answer is that a mask or gloves worn by the public at home or in most nonmedical workplaces is considered normal household or business waste. Recently updated OSHA guidelines suggest that waste disposal workers handle office and home solid waste “with potential or known COVID-19 contamination like any other non-contaminated municipal waste.” Generally, management of such waste “does not require special precautions beyond those already used to protect workers from the hazards they encounter during their routine job tasks in solid waste and wastewater management.”
Even though waste disposal workers treat normal household or business waste as if it is uncontaminated, if exposure to COVID-19 is possible, employers should follow the guidance of agencies such as the World Health Organization and ensure that their employees practice proper hygiene before putting on, removing, and disposing of PPE. After removal, employees should place the used PPE in a bag, tie the bag off and seal it tightly, and place the bag in a more sturdy garbage bag before leaving the material out for pick up. Employees are encouraged to clean their hands (with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer) immediately after handling these items.
To reduce cross-contamination further, employees should consider cleaning the handles of trash bins with disinfectant before and after garbage day (if not more). Doing so can help protect the workers who pick up the waste, as well as protect others in the workplace from possible spread.
In a medical setting, however, the process is different and far more regulated. COVID-19-contaminated material is not considered a Category A infectious substance by the CDC and OSHA. However, it is still managed as regulated “medical waste.” Some facilities are taking extra precautions to make sure that the waste is double-bagged and then boxed accordingly and labeled as COVID-19. The material is then transported to a waste management facility that is permitted to handle and dispose of such material.
Occupational and related infection control in dedicated health care facilities triggers a broader and more complex set of issues and standards that likely requires more fact-specific advice. However, the CDC’s Guidelines for Environmental Infection Control in Health-Care Facilities provides general information related to management of waste streams from hospitals and other health care facilities. The CDC also provides information on medical waste management as a Question and Answer page on its coronavirus website.
In light of the above, employers should review their current procedures for disposing of PPE and ensure that they are taking appropriate steps to manage this potential hazard. As more guidance is released by workplace safety agencies, Reed Smith will continue to review and update this information. Reed Smith has a dedicated team of attorneys both in the United States and Europe focused on occupational and environmental safety and health issues, as well as COVID-19 in particular (read more on our COVID-19 resource page here).