BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. - Hypodermic needles have stabbed five employees this year at the Waste Management Recycling Brevard plant — sending them to the emergency room for blood-borne pathogen treatments.
Since New Year's Day, workers have filled six 30-gallon "biohazard" cardboard boxes with thousands of dirty needles that Space Coast residents improperly tossed into curbside recycling carts.
"Most of these are probably from insulin. But we have gotten the whole setup for heroin, crack, cocaine," said Jim Kington, operations supervisor, peering into a box full of needles.
Inside, used needles were stuffed into empty water bottles, a Dawn detergent bottle and flimsy plastic bags.
"The week before the hurricane, second shift, they had one batch come through. It was about 80 needles — all over the place," Kington said.
"They had to go through, pick them up individually," he said.
Hypodermic needles have no place in a recycling bin, said Amy Boyson, Waste Management community affairs manager.
Waste Management Recycling Brevard processes 350 to 400 tons of materials per day at the Cocoa facility. Items entering the plant travel on a conveyor belt past six employees working the "pre-sort line."
Working quickly with both hands, these employees look for non-recyclable items, then grab them and toss them into various bins before they zip by.
Employees wear Kevlar-lined gloves and forearm sleeves for protection. However, Boyson said most needle sticks occur on the tops of fingers and hands, where their gloves are thinner.
"When an employee is stuck by a needle, they inform management immediately. The facility is shut down," Boyson said.
"And then, either a supervisor or a blood-borne pathogen-trained employee checks the area for the needle," she said. If the needle is found, it is recovered using tongs and delivered to medical experts for analysis.
"If they don't have the needle, the employee is treated for one year, with a variety of shots and blood work every three months," she said.
Boyson provided a written statement from an unidentified employee who was stabbed by a needle on July 25:
"It is a scary situation, especially not knowing the history of the needle. The moment it happened, I knew my life was going to be impacted because someone else improperly disposed of a needle, while I was simply doing my job."
Blood-borne infectious diseases spread by needles include HIV and hepatitis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
Last month, Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees declared a hepatitis A public health emergency amid a statewide outbreak. Medical authorities have reported 2,460 hepatitis A cases this year through Saturday — far surpassing last year's total of 548 cases.
Critically impacted counties: Brevard, Citrus, Glades, Hernando, Hillsborough, Lake, Liberty, Manatee, Marion, Martin, Okeechobee, Orange, Pasco, Pinellas, Sumter, Taylor and Volusia.
"People have to remember, there are human beings on our sort lines," Boyson said.
Put these in your recycling cart
Plastic bottles and containers shaped like a bottle, jug or tub (such as water bottles, food containers, dish soap, laundry detergent and shampoo). Lightly rinse. Leave caps and pumps on.
Cardboard: milk and juice cartons, paper towel and toilet tissue rolls, food boxes and flattened cardboard boxes.
Aluminum, steel and tin cans. Includes clean aluminum foil and food pans.
Glass bottles and jars.
Paper: newspapers, magazines, catalogs, paperback books, office paper, junk mail, envelopes, telephone books and paper bags.
Do not recycle these items
Plastic bags should go into household trash or recycled at sites that accept them, such as Publix. Most UPS Stores accept foam packaging and bubble cushioning — but they should stay out of recycling carts.
Do not recycle hypodermic needles, straws, thin plastic "clamshells" such as strawberry containers, scrap metal, greasy pizza boxes, oven cookware, drinking glasses, ceramics, rope, clothing, hangers, Christmas lights, paper towels and prescription bottles.
Also, do not bag recyclables. Plant workers are instructed to grab and discard bags as they scoot by on the conveyor belt.
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