Challenging students’ decision making skills and sharing teaching best practices are key to keeping a major scientific hub safe
When you have a leading scientific institution with more than 10,000 employees working on cutting-edge research in such fields as medicine, nanotechnology, renewable energy, space exploration and nuclear fusion, you are going to need experienced hazmat specialists on site.
Edward Bernas is one of those specialists charged with keeping the facility, employees and surrounding area safe.
Bernas found his way to hazmat while running the apprenticeship program for a Chicago-based cement mason union. When his workers were not allowed on a hazmat site due to a lack of formal training, Bernas became an instructor to ensure his workers weren’t left off the job again. Then while working for the Center to Protect Workers Rights (CPWR) in Maryland, Bernas got a call that a research facility needed an immediate replacement to teach one class.
He hopped on a plane to teach that class. And 20 years later, he is still teaching all their 40-, 24-, and 8-hour hazmat refresher courses.
We sat down with Bernas to pick his brain on what it takes to effectively teach hazmat. The research facility’s management asked that we not name it.
Q: What type of students do you train?
When I was with CPWR all my students were either union craftsmen or Brownsfield minority workers in a training program. Since then, my students range from crafts workers, radiological control technicians, government personnel, scientists, and researchers.
Q: How do you ensure training scenarios don’t become predictable or stale?
I still stay in contact with all my fellow trainers I have worked with. We all trade exercises and tailor it to the needs of our groups. The first thing we do with a new class is go around the room and find out what they do for a living and any experience they may have. Since we are not teaching a site-specific course per se, we can modify our curriculum so that we exceed 29CFR1910.120. And we better tailor some of our activities, which will be useful to them going forward.
Q: What’s the key to best preparing students to handle real scenarios outside of the controlled training environment?
Hands-on training is the best way by far. We dress our students out in simulated Level B PPE. I create a small clean-up site with a variety of different barrels and containers with labels. The first time they enter, they just record information, doing a recon on what could possibly be out there. The next time, they dress out and sample whatever containers they feel is safe to sample. Needless to say, many surprises are in store for the students if they make a wrong choice.
Q: What is your biggest obstacle when conducting hazmat training?
I am very fortunate that this institution affords me a lot of freedom of what I will be running so long as I have a lesson plan developed for the exercise and all hazards are removed to prevent injuries.
Q: What wicked training problem keeps you up at night?
Staying ahead of the issues that arise every day. I try to read as much as I can on incidents that happen and are reported on. The internet helps. After the Hart Senate building anthrax contamination, it was determined that asbestos workers who have taken or will take the HAZWOPER 40-hour General Site Worker courses would be best to do clean up. We used asbestos workers because they are used to wearing respirators during work and building airtight containments. Biological attacks that responders may have to respond to probably presents the biggest challenge.
Also, how trainers can create a site where information and exercises are shared, and feedback can be given on how to make the training better.
Q: What would it take to solve it?
Training tools like the HazSim simulator is a perfect example of a tool that lets the students have real-time information that they must act on and make decisions without putting them in harm’s way. During the Covid-19 pandemic some companies went to web-based training, which I believe is only “check the box” training. Hands-on and classroom exercises that help students make correct decisions instinctively that improves knowledge is essential.
Q: What devices do you rely on most for realistic training?
We have an area dedicated for HAZWOPER training. Inside that area I have various barrels, containers and items that the students need to identify and respond correctly to. The HazSim simulator has made a huge difference in our abilities to push our training further.
Q: How do you keep the classroom portion of hazmat training fresh?
Interaction and exercises. All students are issued the NIOSH Pocket Guide and the Emergency Response Guidebook to keep. We are constantly having them look up chemicals and evaluate the situation we just presented and they must come up with a solution.
Q: What’s the optimum class size and why?
Eighteen. In our exercises outside we have three groups of students. Each will work in all the zones:
- Exclusion Zone
- Warm Zone (contamination reduction zone)
- Support Zone
Each team of six will work in a zone and once the task is completed they will rotate to another zone, which will be change by the instructors while the entry team dresses out. With six team members, the buddy system can be strictly enforced so they learn how important it is to work together.
Q: What’s been your biggest “ah-ha” teaching moment?
I was once recorded on videotape while I stood behind a stand and taught. The evaluator said I had way too much energy, and if I were to walk around engaging the students I would have more energy in my presentation.
Q: What role does technology play in how you teach hazmat and what do you think the future holds for it?
We are currently looking into virtual reality training, which will take training to a whole new level with the only limitations being the instructor’s imagination.