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Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) provides "cradle-to-grave" control of solid and hazardous waste by establishing management requirements on generators and transporters of hazardous waste and on owners and operators of hazardous waste treatment, storage, and disposal facilities. Federal RCRA regulations are set forth in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) at 40 CFR Parts 240-282.

Hazardous waste inspectors will more than likely take a full week to conduct a site visit. The reason being that pretty much every activity of a medical facility generates some hazardous waste and the hazardous waste inspector will want to inspect all these operations, including all your laboratories, your maintenance areas, your pharmacy, your dental clinic, your underground storage tanks, and your morgue. The inspector is NOT going to just visit your hazardous waste storage site. Given the large number of areas that a hazardous waste inspector will want to see, EPA usually sends more than one hazardous waste inspector to reduce the time needed for the visit.

So what are the hazardous waste inspectors looking for when they conduct their site visit? First, they will want to verify that the hospital has identified all their hazardous waste. Some hazardous waste is listed in the RCRA regulations. Others the hospital will have to determine for itself whether it is ignitable, corrosive, reactive, or toxic.

One common mistake in this area is relying on advice from equipment manufacturers or the common waste disposal practices of the medical community in determining whether or not a waste is hazardous. Inspectors don’t know how many times they have heard facilities tell them that "Everyone is throwing that waste solution down the drain so it must be fine," or "The manufacturer says we can throw that unknown substance down the drain --  I’m sure it is not hazardous."

For information on how to properly identify your hazardous waste, please see HERC’s Hazardous Waste Determination page.  You should also check the HERC Hazardous Waste State Resource Locator page for your state for links to any state-specific variations on the federal rules that may apply to you.

In addition to the identification of hazardous waste, the inspectors will also be calculating how much hazardous waste your hospital generates in a month in order to determine your hospital’s generator status. There are three types of hazardous waste generators: conditionally exempt small quantity generators, small quantity generators, and large quantity generators. Once the inspector knows the type of generator the hospital is, the inspector will then determine whether or not the hospital is properly managing and disposing of their hazardous waste in accordance with the requirements for their generator type. They will be looking to see if your hazardous waste containers are properly labeled, are sealed except when adding or removing waste, are in good condition and are inspected weekly. They will also be checking to see if you are preparing your hazardous waste manifests correctly and are using authorized hazardous waste transporters and disposal facilities.

For more information on how to determine what type of hazardous waste generator you are and what hazardous waste requirements apply to your facility, please visit HERC’s hazardous waste management pages. Since the more hazardous waste you generate the more requirements you need to comply with, HERC highly recommends that you contact Practice Greenhealth, who can assist you in developing a hazardous waste minimization program at your facility.

Hazardous waste inspectors will also be observing how the hospital is storing hazardous materials and whether or not these storage practices are posing a threat to human health or the environment. For instance, is the hospital storing incompatible materials together or are reactive materials stored improperly? Are the containers made with materials that are compatible with the material or waste stored in them?

Adequate analysis should be performed to avoid creating uncontrolled hazards such as heat generation, violent reaction, fire, explosion, and generation of flammable or toxic gases.

Furthermore, hazardous waste inspectors are going to determine whether or not your employees are thoroughly familiar with proper waste handling and emergency procedures. If there is a mercury spill, do employees know how to respond? Do the employees know what wastes should go into a red bag and what should not?

In addition, they will check to see whether or not your hospital has adequate emergency procedures in place to minimize risk from fires, spills, and other releases. Do you, for instance, have the necessary spill control material and decontamination supplies? Do you have an effective internal communication or alarm system in place?

Inspectors will, of course, check to see that you have all required records. Again, what records are required depends on your generator status.
Finally, they will verify that your underground storage tanks {link to Seth’s site} have the necessary corrosive, spill and overfill protection or were closed properly.

Sixty-one percent of all violations disclosed to EPA from voluntary audits conducted by healthcare facilities under EPA’s audit policy relate to hazardous waste. This is the reason why inspectors are mostly concerned with RCRA issues. Common hazardous waste (HW) violations being found at healthcare facilities either through inspections or self audits are:

  • No/infrequent weekly inspections of HW storage/satellite accumulation areas
  • No/improper labeling of HW containers
  • Open containers of HW
  • No/Incorrect HW manifests
  • Improper disposal of HW (e.g., throw fluorescent light bulbs and paints in trash, lab chemicals down drain)
  • Lack of HW management training of employees
  • Treating HW without a permit
  • Lack of RCRA contingency plan
  • Spill control equipment not readily accessible
  • Failure to make HW determinations
  • Failure to ensure that HW meets Land Disposal Restrictions
  • Failure to upgrade/close underground storage tanks (UST) by 12/22/98
  • Malfunctioning leak detection systems on UST

Given the high number of hazardous waste compliance problems noted at medical facilities, HERC strongly recommends that healthcare facilities conduct compliance audits of their hazardous waste management activities. To help conduct these audits, EPA has developed the following 4 hazardous waste environmental compliance audit protocols:

Protocol for Conducting Environmental Compliance, Audits of Facilities Regulated under Subtitle D of RCRA (3/1/00) (PDF) (751 KB)

Protocol for Conducting Environmental Compliance, Audits of Hazardous Waste Generators under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (10/1/98) (PDF) (729 KB)

EPA also developed a handbook for small businesses on understanding the hazardous waste rules which is one of the best plain English guides on the requirements for small quantity and conditionally-exempt small quantity generators. In addition, they have a fact sheet on the hazardous waste requirements for large quantity generators. Finally, EPA’s Office of Underground Storage Tanks has a website where you can obtain guides on how to comply with the UST regulations.

©2015 Healthcare Environmental Resource Center
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