In light of the potential for distribution of the vaccine, employers are revisiting their plans for return to work and the many challenges that office re-openings might bring, including the requirement that employees wear personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and gloves, and the disposal of such equipment. Most companies (non-health care or COVID-19 treatment facilities) generally assume that masks and gloves are simply solid waste and can go in dumpsters per Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines. While this designation may be appropriate (based on the state and local requirements), however, it is prudent for even non-health-care-related employers to have a plan in place to maintain a clean workplace and manage PPE disposal procedures if an employee exhibits COVID-19 symptoms. Moreover, many workplaces are contemplating the potential of offering COVID-19 testing and vaccination on-site, and employers interested in offering such services should be mindful of the potential for more stringent waste disposal requirements for used PPE. As you might expect, there are no straight-forward answers with the new phenomenon of PPE and COVID-19 as the federal Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1988 expired in 1991. Whether PPE is a medical waste will generally depend on a state’s rules and may depend on an employer’s knowledge about the potential for COVID-19 exposure.

The CDC generally recognizes that precisely defining medical waste on the basis of quantity and type of etiologic agents present is virtually impossible. Moreover, there may be a lag in receiving COVID-19 test results, which may make it difficult to determine whether PPE waste has been in contact of a COVID-19 positive person at the time the waste is generated. Thus, the CDC’s practical approach to medical waste management is to identify wastes that represent a sufficient potential risk of causing infection during handling and disposal and for which some precautions likely are prudent. The OSHA Guidance on Preparing the Workplace for COVID-19, classifies exposure risk based upon the type of workplace and an individual employee’s job function. According to OSHA guidance, it is prudent for employers and workplace facilities to educate workers performing cleaning, laundry, and trash pickup to recognize the symptoms of COVID-19 and provide training on how to properly dispose of PPE to all cleaning staff on-site prior to providing cleaning tasks. If an employee is identified as having COVID-19, an employer should comply with OSHA’s standards on Bloodborne Pathogens (29 CFR 1910.1030), including proper disposal of regulated waste and PPE (29 CFR 1910.132).

Much of the PPE waste guidance issued by the states focus on the handling of PPE waste from medical facilities, including health care treatment, testing, and lab facilities. For example, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) issued guidance that recognizes under the state’s Medical Waste Management Program (MWMP) that not all PPE used in connection with COVID-19 testing, treatment, specimen handling, and cleaning is mandated to be managed as medical waste. CDPH allows facilities discretion over the management procedures for PPE and authorizes generators to make the determination as to whether PPE should be disposed of as medical waste or as solid waste. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection anticipates that there may be many new medical waste generator sites since used PPE may or may not be considered regulated medical waste depending on the circumstances of use. The state’s regulated medical waste rules can apply to any person or entity who generates waste in the course of diagnosis, treatment, immunization, research, or testing, subject to certain exemptions. In Texas, generally only health care facilities generate medical waste, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has issued a statement that it will “exercise enforcement discretion for all pharmacies that provide COVID-19 testing and treat COVID-19 waste on-site using an approved treatment method.”

Generally, and based on the requirements of a particular state, employers have been provided some latitude in determining how to characterize PPE waste. As state environmental and health authorities grapple with waste related to COVID-19, many employers, particularly those offering testing and seeking to offer vaccination, should consult their state’s rules and may even consider overmanaging certain PPE and testing materials as medical waste.