Common vs. Regulated Medical Waste

medical wasteWhile the term “medical waste” refers to a very broad range of waste materials produced by facilities and businesses in the healthcare industry, there are actually several clearly defined categories of medical waste. These categories have very strict guidelines mandated by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) that refer to the proper disposal of medical waste.

Failing to properly follow OSHA guidelines could not only result in significant fines, but could also cause serious harm to the health of clients and employees. OSHA has put guidelines in place for a good reason, so it’s important that businesses in industries that produce medical waste are aware of the different medical waste categories, and the disposal guidelines that pertain to them.


Where to Start

There are extensive subcategories of medical waste that are very important to be familiar with, but initially, all medical waste fits into one of two categories—common medical waste and regulated medical waste. The key difference between the two is that regulated medical waste is any waste that contains or has been exposed to blood or other potentially infectious materials (OPIMs).

OPIMs most typically refer to human blood or anything that has been contaminated with it, but can also include materials contaminated with other bodily fluids such as:

  • Semen
  • Vaginal secretions
  • Cerebrospinal fluid (fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord)
  • Synovial fluid (fluid surrounding bone joints)
  • Pleural fluid
  • Pericardial fluid
  • Peritoneal fluid
  • Amniotic fluid

Pathogenic microorganisms are also considered OPIMs, while sweat, tears, saliva (except in dental procedures), urine, feces, and vomit are not.

This distinction is critical because—as the term points out—the materials are potentially infectious and harmful to human health. OSHA guidelines regulating the disposal of medical waste generally refer to any waste containing OPIMs, and are therefore mostly concerned with regulated medical waste.

medical wasterAs you can imagine, practically all biological waste could contain OPIMs, but much medical waste does not in fact fit this criterion. In fact, a great deal of the medical waste generated is considered common medical waste. Common medical waste can include any materials that contain sweat, urine, feces, or saliva, since these are not considered to be OPIMs. Just a few examples of common medical waste include, but are not limited to:

  • Empty IV bags
  • Empty stool or urine containers
  • Foley/catheter bags
  • Bedpans
  • Exam gloves
  • Unused medical products and supplies (excluding unused sharps).

Now that you know a little more about the distinctions between these two categories, let’s take a closer look at regulated medical waste, its subcategories, and how they are defined.


Regulated Medical Waste

On a federal level, the term “medical waste” is loosely defined. OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens Standard—which is the central regulated medical waste disposal guideline—defines regulated medical waste as,”liquid or semi-liquid blood or other potentially infectious material (OPIM); contaminated items that would release blood or OPIM in a liquid or semi-liquid state if compressed; items that are caked with dried blood or OPIM and are capable of releasing these materials during handling; contaminated sharps; and pathological and microbiological wastes containing blood or OPIM.”

Because this definition is so broad, however, state legislation often defines regulated medical waste and handling guidelines further. Each state’s medical waste definitions and guidelines vary slightly, so be sure to check with your local laws before you act.

Generally, states define six different subcategories of medical waste. These categories are as follows:


Pathological/Anatomical Waste:

  • Anatomical waste is all human and animal wastes that are clearly identifiable as body tissues, organs, or body parts, while pathological wastes are human tissue samples collected for the purpose of trying to better understand a patient’s disease or ailments.

Cultures and Stocks of Infectious Agents:

  • These include specimens from medical and pathology laboratories, culture dishes, and devices used to transfer, inoculate, and mix that are likely to contain organisms that may be pathogenic to healthy humans. Also included in this category are discarded live and attenuated vaccines.

Contaminated Sharps:

  • These are any items that can induce subdermal inoculation of infectious agents or that can easily penetrate the skin, puncture waste bags and cardboard boxes such as hypodermic needles, syringes, Pasteur pipettes, capillary tubes, razor blades, scalpel blades, and broken glass from the laboratory.
  • Sharps require special handling and packaging under both OSHA and DOT. Refer to your state’s guidelines when identifying what items are classified as sharps.

Isolation Waste:

  • Isolation waste is any biological or contaminated waste generated from isolated or quarantined humans and animals to protect others from highly communicable diseases.

Contaminated Animal Parts and Bedding:

  • Any animal carcasses, body parts, bedding and related wastes that may have been exposed to infectious agents during research, production of biologicals, or testing of pharmaceuticals are considered to be contaminated and must be properly disposed of.


As you can see, there are a variety of materials that could be considered to be regulated medical waste. Teaching and research labs should take particular caution, as the guidelines don’t often directly point to these types of medical waste producing entities, but have an equal opportunity to cause harm to employees and others through the improper handling of such waste.


Protect Your Business and Employees with Compliant Medical Waste Disposal Services

medical wasteAs a medical waste producer, it is your duty to responsibly dispose of this waste. Failing to do so can cause severe harm to innocent people and cost you your business.

Medical Waste Pros understands that this process is complicated and fraught with opportunities to make errors, which is why we’ve developed tried-and-true compliant methods to handle your medical waste with ease. We offer a number of medical waste services across a variety of industries and are fully equipped to meet your medical waste needs.

To learn more about our medical waste services, request a free quote by filling out the form to the right or give us a call at (888) 755-6370.