Training Spotlight: HazMat Management

From laboratory chemicals and paints to refrigerants, managers are educating maintenance technicians and occupants on hazards and safety

By Dan Hounsell  

Managing hazardous materials has always been challenging. Maintenance managers and their front-line technicians have always had their hands full with the issue, whether they were handling refrigerants, collecting computers for recycling or cleaning up an accidental mercury spill in a laboratory.

Lately, though, the stakes have risen dramatically when it comes to cataloging, handling and disposing of these materials. So managers have asserted their central role in the process.

“We’ve realized over the last 10 years that requiring schools to dispose of chemicals is one thing, but having them actually do it is another,” says Tom Chojnacki, manager of environmental services for Milwaukee Public Schools. “Teachers received our notices, but they weren’t filtering down enough for us. So we decided to take it upon ourselves to do it.” Now, the district is working with a contractor to create an inventory of chemicals in 15 schools.

The district is hardly alone in its efforts to bring more control and organization to this process. In the last five years, regulatory agencies at the federal, state and local levels have stepped up their efforts to enforce environmental protection regulations in education and health care facilities, in part by inspecting and imposing fines, but also in part by offering managers and their staffs guidance and consulting in cataloging, storing, using and disposing of a variety of hazardous materials.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has raised the profile of the issue, especially in the Northeastern region of the country, by notifying hospital executives and college and university presidents of its intentions to step up inspections for hazardous materials in these facilities. Adding even more weight to the effort, the agency also created a national-level position for its colleges and universities effort.

In response, managers in many institutional and commercial facilities are expanding their activities to train their staffs and others in their facilities on the lurking dangers of hazardous materials to curtail the risk.

Identifying Needs

Most, if not all, organizations have some sort of program in place to oversee hazardous materials in their facilities. In some cases, though, having those programs put to the test has revealed areas where personnel need additional training.

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) underwent an inspection by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) two years ago, says Bill Smith, the center’s director of environmental management and safety. The inspection revealed areas that need improvement.

“The preparation for the inspection showed that there were some things we thought we understood that needed to be tightened up,” Smith says, including some activities related to logging, storing and accounting for refrigerants.

“Our control of refrigerants was a little loose, so we had to tighten up the whole process of refrigerant management,” he says. The medical center had worked with the state’s department of environmental protection to develop its program, he says, “but refrigerants weren’t as high on the local folks’ list.”

In the case of Milwaukee Public Schools, Chojnacki’s department knew it was a high priority to get a better handle on laboratory chemicals and other hazardous materials in their schools. The challenge was getting teachers and administrators in the schools to share that priority.

Now, the district contracted with an outside company to inventory laboratory chemicals and other potentially hazardous materials in 15 high schools. The department plans to expand the inventory to other schools as funds become available, says Pat O’Donnell, an industrial hygienist with the district.

“Operations and maintenance has been good at putting together a list of chemicals they have on and use daily,” Chojnacki says, adding that the list include everything from cleaning chemicals to refrigerants. The challenge has been getting similar kinds of information from schools.

As a result, the inspections will focus on art, vocational and laboratories to look for laboratory chemicals, paints, solvents and glazes lurking — possibly ignored and improperly stored — in lockers, cupboards and closets.

A New Era

The post-9/11 world has introduced a greater potential risk to facilities and complicated the need for hazardous materials training — weapons of mass destruction (WMD), such as anthrax. Smith says the medical center has stepped up its training and orientation to prepare maintenance, engineering and clinical personnel on responses to such emergencies, whether at the hospital or elsewhere.

“If you have victims of a chemical attack brought to your institution, you’re going to have people doing things like manipulating the HVAC system,” he says. “You need to communicate and coordinate your activities.” Despite competition in other areas of business, healthcare facilities cooperate when it comes to preparing for such situations.

“The health care community has been very helpful in sharing information on this issue,” he says.

Training Issues

In most organizations, training on hazardous materials starts at the time of hire.

“When we hire new engineers, we give them information on chemicals they’ll be working with,” O’Donnell says. The training includes a two-day course on asbestos, and trades people receive information on materials they’ll work with, including material safety data sheets (MSDS) on these materials. The district also brings in an outside training to provide information on working in confined spaces, O’Donnell says.

The process is similar at UPMC. Worker training on chemical considerations starts when the new laboratory workers starts, Smith says. A representative from Smith’s department walks the new hire through such issues as chemicals on site, proper storage, fume hoods, MSDS, and chemical compatibility. Then, a representative from the specific department orients the worker to specific chemicals that are used within the department. Some of the information that shapes the training comes from on-site inspections.

“All of our inspections are done in-house,” Smith says. Individual departments at the medical center handle general inspections of chemicals on site, which Smith’s department reviews. His department also inspects all laboratories twice a year to check compliance with requirements for such items as fume hoods and personal protective equipment.

Smith’s department also makes presentations at monthly meetings held by the hospital’s engineering department. The presentations cover key issues, including safety and hazardous materials management.

Measuring Effectiveness

How well does the training work? That’s a difficult question to answer in many cases because correlating spending training to lower costs is challenging.

“You can’t make a one for one comparison.” O’Donnell says, adding that information on the results of training are mostly anecdotal. He does offer one piece of data that might indicate the effectiveness of the department’s efforts: workers’ compensation claims have dropped in the last year.

Smith says, that given the nature of maintenance and engineering work performed in the hospital, he primarily tracks workers’ completion of required training, adding, “Our level of exposure to hazardous materials is relatively low.”

Some of Smith’s information on training effectiveness — and areas where additional training might be needed — comes from spot quizzes given to hospital employees. The quizzes use questions on key issues, such as hazardous materials and fire safety.

The Next Level

Training related to hazardous materials management evolves, and managers are continuing their efforts to deliver information throughout facilities.

For Milwaukee Public schools, that means taking the results of its inventory and putting them online, O’Donnell says. The online database will feature all chemicals present in the schools, based in part on the results of the current inventory process, and will be more accessible and useful than a binder of MSDS sheets.

“The database will be accessible to everyone in the schools,” he says, adding that they will be able to bring up on screen essential information on any chemical, including handling, use, storage and disposal requirements.

And to further minimize the risks presented by unmonitored chemicals, the district soon will require that teachers who want to bring new chemicals into the school will need the approval of a special committee monitoring chemical use.

HazMat Resources

Where do managers turn for information on hazardous materials? Bill Smith, director of environmental safety and health at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, says he checks out trade publications, web sites and peers for essential information.

“E-mail is where we usually start the discussion,” he says. As for web sites, he or someone in his department monitors these daily:

— Dan Hounsell

RCRA: Common Violations

The Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA) regulates the storage, handling and disposal of hazardous waste. In November 2004, the New England region of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency compiled a list of common RCRA violations, along with the related area in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). Among the violations:

  • failure to clearly label satellite accumulation containers with the words “hazardous waste” and other words identifying container contents; 40 CFR 262.34(a)(3)
  • failure to clearly mark the period of accumulation for accumulation container; 40 CFR 262.34(a)(2)
  • failure to provide and document initial hazardous waste training; 40 CFR 265.16
  • failure to separate or otherwise protect containers of hazardous waste from other containers storing incompatible materials or wastes; 40 CFR 265.177(c)
  • failure to have an adequate contingency plan for new operations; 40 CFR 265.54(c)

— Dan Hounsell

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  posted on 6/1/2005   Article Use Policy

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