Photo/Illutration Infectious medical waste delivered from medical facilities are sprayed with disinfectant and carried to the incinerator on a conveyor belt on May 14. (Naoko Kawamura)

Workers at a Tokyo-based disposal company are soaked in sweat, wearing goggles and protective suits to keep them safe from infection while incinerating the medical waste from health care workers battling the novel coronavirus. 

The company has been burning through a steady stream of used medical products, including needles, gauze and protective suits, since February.

As hospitals rapidly churn through the protective gear, those tasked with disposing of the infectious medical waste face a relentless demand, which brings risks of heatstroke and burnout--not to mention the disease itself.

“Employees have been worn out,” said the 66-year-old president of the company. “To avoid heatstroke, we need to pay closer attention to their health conditions.”

Despite that the infection caseload is dropping, the demand for their work will continue as long as there are patients with COVID-19.

The Tokyo metropolitan government authorized the company to dispose of the potentially infectious medical waste; it was engaged in similar work in 2009 when H1N1 influenza was going around in Tokyo.

But the company president said the coronavirus situation is nothing like what they have dealt with before.

“The level of nervousness is unprecedented. Since there are asymptomatic people at medical facilities, we need to consider all (the medical waste) as potentially containing the virus.”

Infectious waste materials packed into boxes at medical facilities are delivered by refrigerator truck to the facility. Workers spray disinfectant and seal the boxes with adhesive tape.

Then the boxes are carried to the incinerator by conveyor belt. Incinerator temperatures can be as high as 1,000 degrees. The fumes and ashes from the incinerator pass through a special cleaning filter to curb air pollution.

The company was first asked to dispose of infectious waste during the pandemic from a government institution handling the coronavirus outbreak on the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship. Since then, the company has been taking in waste from hospitals that accept coronavirus patients.