What is a Sharps Container?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A sharps container is a medical waste container which has been designed to hold sharps, medical instruments with sharp edges such as needles and scalpels. Sharps containers are used to safely dispose of sharps, and to ensure that sharps are segregated from other kinds of medical waste. Hospitals and clinics typically have sharps containers in all patient treatment areas, and it is also possible to obtain home sharps containers which can be used by people who utilize sharp medical instruments at home, such as diabetics who need to take regular insulin shots.

A sharps containers is designed to hold medical instruments with sharp edges, such as a scalpel.
A sharps containers is designed to hold medical instruments with sharp edges, such as a scalpel.

A typical sharps container is red or yellow, depending on the nation. It is made from thick plastic which will resist needlesticks so that the container will be safe to handle, and it includes labeling which indicates that the contents are biohazardous and that the container holds sharps. Sharps containers may be single use, in which case the container is disposed of along with its contents, or reusable, with the container being emptied, sterilized, and sent out again. Reusable containers are usually emptied by robots at medical waste processing facilities.

Used needles and similar items are stored and transported in special puncture-proof sharps containers.
Used needles and similar items are stored and transported in special puncture-proof sharps containers.

Using a sharps container is very easy; the sharps simply need to be dropped through the slot in the lid after use. Users should not force sharps through the lid of the container, as this can expose them to the risk of needlesticks, and they need to make sure that sharps containers are changed before they get too full. Most are designed with a flap over the lid which allows people to put objects through the lid, but does not permit objects to pass the other way.

Used needles should be disposed of in a Sharps container.
Used needles should be disposed of in a Sharps container.

Disposing of sharps properly is very important. Since sharps usually penetrate the skin, each sharp contains material which could potentially be hazardous. Sharps cannot be reused because they are blunted with use, and because they could potentially pass on dangerous pathogens. Being able to store and dispose of sharps properly in a sharps container ensures that fresh instruments are used on every patient, and reduces the risk of needlestick injuries and the transmission of pathogens.

Some people may try to dispose of sharps by breaking off or blunting their tips and throwing them away, or capping them and throwing them away. This practice is not advised, because people handling regular garbage could potentially be exposed to injury from the improperly disposed sharps. In some regions, garbage companies can fine people or refuse to collect garbage from them if they find sharps in the conventional garbage.

A variety of sizes of sharps container are available, from very small containers which fit on an exam room counter to large barrels which can be used in operating rooms and other high volume areas. They can be provided with a medical waste disposal contract, or ordered individually from medical supply companies.

Diabetics who need to take regular insulin shots may use a sharps container to dispose of their needles.
Diabetics who need to take regular insulin shots may use a sharps container to dispose of their needles.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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