Students put their training to work in handling CBLS Hazardous Waste Sites

Corey Briggs (green jacket) checks out a piece of electronic sampling gear , one of many devices that were loaned to URI for the final exam.

Corey Briggs (green jacket) checks out a piece of electronic sampling gear , one of many devices that were loaned to URI for the final exam.

Normally the bucolic grounds surrounding the Center for Biotechnology and Life Sciences are neatly landscaped and aesthetically pleasing but on a recent chilly spring evening, the place looked like a disaster zone.

The curving rain garden, normally fed by rainwater from the CBLS roof, was strewn with garishly-colored plastic containers, drums, and other debris. A large tank marked “ACID” lay on its side on a sidewalk, spilling its contents. The grassy knolls were strewn with “spills.” The two entrances to the CBLS were cordoned off with yellow caution tape, tied to barriers. Throughout the area were teams of people wearing specialized protective respiratory masks and brightly colored chemical suits designed to protect them from the various hazardous solids, liquids and gases.

Although it looked like a disaster zone it was a mock one—and all of those people in the chemical suits were students taking their final practical exam – the grand finale of a 13week training course offered for the first time at URI.

The course is the brainchild of Corey Briggs, a Senior Manager for ENVIRON International Corporation (www.environcorp.com) and a 1980 URI alumnus. Briggs, who is also on the CELS Dean’s Advisory Council, offered to teach a course that would train students how to safely anticipate, recognize, evaluate, and control various hazards and risks that can be encountered at hazardous waste sites and during hazardous substance emergency responses such as chemical spills. The course is officially called GEO 590 –Special Problems: “Environmental Hazards and Response (HAZWOPER – OSHA’s acronym for its Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Standard.) The course was comprised of graduate students, undergraduates, and staff from the URI safety office all of whom would benefit having this specialized training on their resume. Those who successfully completed the 13 week (40+-hour) course earned a formal OSHA HAZWOPER certificate and also three FEMA training certifications.

Thrilled with the course offering was Dr. Anne I. Veeger, CELS Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, who noted that “Corey wanted to give something back to his college.” The course was an ideal project. Briggs said the course will hopefully not be just a one-shot thing—with the goal of putting it in the URI catalog as a permanent course.

Similar training is offered at other universities but this one was a first for URI.

Two students in full HAZMAT gear take soil samples to check for contamination.

Two students in full HAZMAT gear take soil samples to check for contamination.

The final exam was a so-called “site investigation,” a mock drill designed to require  the students to use all their acquired training to investigate unknown spills of various types—even radioactive ones. The 24 students had to use radio communication in the process of investigating the various spills and other mock hazards—they were linked to one another and also to a command center staffed by other students located inside the CBLS building. They had to take soil and water samples and fill out reports as they went along. And when they were all done, they had to properly dispose of their protective suits and other gear. The entire exercise lasted over three hours.

Briggs said the course was designed to not only meet, but also exceed the minimum training requirements of the OSHA HAZWOPER standard.  With successful completion of the course, the students just need to obtain company-specific information on their employer’s internal safety and health program and obtain their on-the-job field experience. Prior to the mock exercise, students met in class and listened to guest lecturers, engaged in discussions, had laboratory exercises, participated in demonstrations, and engaged in other hands-on activities. They had homework, quizzes and mandatory reading assignments—just like a regular course.

Guest lecturers and teaching support personnel included those from ENVIRON, Amgen, federal OSHA, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, Massachusetts Workplace Safety and Health Program, and AJ Abrams and Co.

Invaluable support was also provided by the Kingston Fire Department and URI Department of Public Safety.

Sponsors of equipment and materials included the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, New Pig Corporation, Apollo Safety, Kappler, U.S. Environmental Rental, SKC, American Industrial Hygiene Association, and FMC Corporation.

Briggs is hoping to conduct the course again next spring, probably in an expanded format.

For students entering the workplace having the OSHA HAZWOPER certification on their resumes is a plus, not only for the jobs they take, but also for their employers who thus are spared the cost and inconvenience of having new employees take the training on company time, said Briggs.

The entire graduating HAZWOPER class and their instructors strike a pose at the conclusion of their final exam--with URI's Mascot as well.

The entire graduating HAZWOPER class and their instructors strike a pose at the conclusion of their final exam--with URI's Mascot as well.