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HAZWOPER training: a ‘gold star by your name’

June 26, 2012
Mike Sherry, Eric Madden, Rachael Hines and Sarah Brokus discuss a plan of action before entering a simulated contamination site.

Mike Sherry, Eric Madden, Rachael Hines and Sarah Brokus discuss a plan of action before entering a simulated contamination site.

Chances are good that passersby who walked near Davis Hall or the NIU Transportation Center during the week of June 11 did a double take.

After all, it’s not every day that 21 NIU students in Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) and Tyvek® suits, practicing the proper handling of hazardous materials and simulating work on contaminated sites.

It was all part of an engaged learning experience developed by Melissa Lenczewski, associate professor in the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. If Lenczewski has her way, the 40-hour HAZWOPER (HAZardous Waste OPerations and Emergency Response) training could become a routine sight on the NIU campus.

“My goal is to offer this training every year,” Lenczewski says. “Completing this training along with their bachelor’s degrees translates directly into jobs for our students. It’s a significant factor in positioning them in the workplace.”

Lenczewski says she got the idea from talking with her students who were applying for internships and summer/short-term employment.

Employers clearly preferred applicants who had already been through the training, which can cost as much as $600 per person. For smaller businesses, the cost plus the loss of work time to complete the training represent a significant investment, one that most are not willing to make for a short-term employee such as a student worker.

Elicia Bailey and Ryan Sego take a well sample.

Elicia Bailey and Ryan Sego take a well sample.

Colin Booth, chair of the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences, says this is a win-win situation.

“This training course is a necessity for new employees in the environmental geosciences industry, so it provides a leg-up for our students and graduates who are just entering the job market,” Booth says. “Melissa had tremendous support from many areas, including grants from the Committee for the Improvement of Undergraduate Education and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Engaged Learning fund. This was engaged learning at its best – providing practical, hands on experiences that boost career prospects.”

In addition to expanding students’ career options, the course complements classroom instruction with active learning – a key goal of NIU’s Vision 2020 initiative.

HAZWOPER training provides the kinds of hands-on experiences that reach well beyond the traditional classroom, helping to connect what students learn in class to what they will encounter in real life situations. It also expands students’ understanding of their discipline and helps them develop better critical thinking skills.

The course combines lectures and practice that help students identify, confine and remediate electrical, surface, chemically reactive and other types of hazards typically found at waste sites.

Elicia Bailey and Ryan Sego prepare oil drums for transport

Elicia Bailey and Ryan Sego prepare oil drums for transport

OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) requires the training for workers who will be performing activities that could expose them to hazardous substances, including clean-up operations, corrective actions, and emergency response operations involving hazardous substances and their storage, disposal or treatment.

The program was truly a collaborative effort, Lenczewski says.

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences provided a grant of $1,500, which supported the cost of the OSHA-certified trainer, John Guglielmo with ESI2001. A $1,000 grant from NIU’s Committee on the Improvement of Undergraduate Education helped cover a portion of the cost of equipment and materials. The NIU Department of Technology loaned its SCBAs to the program, and the NIU Department of Transportation loaned the use of its facility along with the 55-gallon drums that participating students used to practice moving and containing hazardous materials.

“The students loved it, and they learned a lot,” Lenczewski says. “Almost all of them got 100 percent – or close to it – on their certification exam.”

Ellen Raimondi, a graduate student in geology, found the experience extremely valuable.

Lauren Schroeder and Briana O'Halleran help Vicky Mikszta prepare to enter a simulated contaminated site.

Lauren Schroeder and Briana O’Halleran help Vicky Mikszta prepare to enter a simulated contaminated site.

“The payoff really comes when you’re looking for a job,” Raimondi says.

“If you apply for a position having already completed this training, that makes you stand out; it’s like having a little gold star by your name. Especially when you’re an undergrad, because there aren’t a lot of ways to make yourself stand out from others competing for the same internship or job,”  she adds. “Having this training helps you stand out to employers.”

One of those employers is Daniel Horvath, owner of Resource Consulting, Inc., in Geneva, Ill.

Horvath’s company provides such services as environmental site assessments, brownfield management services, soil and groundwater remediation and water analysis.

“While there may be a tedious aspect to the training, I learned long ago the major benefits,” Horvath says.

“We deal with hazardous substances and petroleum frequently. Although health and safety issues rarely arise, this type of training is crucial on those occasions when it is needed. And, having a new hire who has  already completed the HAZWOPER training is a huge benefit in that I won’t have to send that new employee out of the office for a week. He or she can come on board and be ready to work immediately,” he adds.

Horvath has “depended on the NIU geology and geography programs for my own education, for insights into my work when my training and experience aren’t enough and for my own staffing.”

“The programs create fantastic job candidates, and I’m looking forward to hiring another NIU graduate soon,” he says. “NIU geology has a great curriculum in place to provide the industry with employees ready to do their jobs. This training program is yet another example of the department taking that extra step to make sure their graduates are well-prepared for advanced training and careers.”

Briana O'Halleran learns to use self-contained breathing apparatus and protective suit.

Briana O’Halleran learns to use self-contained breathing apparatus and protective suit.

In fact, three of Horvath’s four employees at Resource Consulting, Inc., hold NIU degrees: general manager Brigette Schroeder, project manager Brian Beetz and environmental technician Brandi Talaga.

Mike Sherry, who just graduated in May with his bachelor’s degree in environmental geosciences, said the training made a clear difference during his job search.

“I have seen many job openings online that mention ‘HAZWOPER preferred,’ ” he says. “In fact, about two weeks ago during a phone interview with a company in Alaska, I was asked if I had any training that would help me on the job. I told them that I was enrolled in the HAZWOPER course, and they were very pleased.”

Lenczewski knows first-hand that having the training makes her students more attractive to employers.

Two of her students were interviewing while enrolled in the course. When they told their potential employers that they were taking the HAZWOPER course and would be certified within the week, the students were hired on the spot. Two other student participants received job advancements by completing the course.

“It’s a real ‘value-added’ proposition for our students,” she says. “And after all, isn’t that what education is all about?”

by Deborah Fransen