Workers Trained to Safely Respond to HazMat Emergencies

Students in the TNEC training program wear protective suits for cleaning up hazardous waste and materials.

By Karen Angelo

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, The New England Consortium (TNEC) researchers found that workers who were charged with the cleanup of materials and property were exposed to mold and other biological and chemical hazards. 

With a five-year $7.6 million grant from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, TNEC will expand its traditional hazardous materials training program to include workers who respond to natural disasters caused by climate change. 

“Our goals have always been to reduce hazardous workplace exposures and prevent related injuries, illnesses, fatalities and costs associated with these outcomes,” says Craig Slatin, a professor in UMass Lowell’s Division of Public Health who heads TNEC. “The new emphasis on preparing workers for cleaning up after climate change-related extreme weather events is in line with our mission. Providing such services is a necessary component for protecting the health and safety of workers and the public as we adapt to the changing climate.” 

One of TNEC’s grant partners, the Civil Service Employees Association, will train 1,000 workers in building trades, sanitation, maintenance, health care, universities and school districts. When disaster strikes, these workers will serve as skilled support personnel for state, county and municipal governments.

TNEC will also provide training to workers around New England, including a collaboration with Coalitions for Occupational Safety and Health to offer programs in Spanish and Portuguese in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. 

“As severe weather events continue to increase across our nation, our goal is to prepare public employers and their employees before response and recovery services are needed,” says Slatin. “We will train them to safely work in conditions that expose them to mold, carbon monoxide, chemicals, sewage, lead and asbestos – all hazards that could be encountered during clean-up after flooding and other catastrophes.” 

Partners on the grant include the Coalitions for Occupational Safety and Health of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Hampshire, along with the Civil Service Employees Association of New York State and Local 1000 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. 

Funding Continues for Core Emergency Response Training Program

As it has for 29 years, TNEC will continue to train employees engaged in hazardous waste operations and emergency response. 

In partnership with another grant partner, the Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Agency (MIIA), TNEC will establish training for supervisors and managers of departments in municipal governments. 

TNEC will also evaluate the effectiveness of the programs to see if the municipal departments that received training reduced hazardous workplace exposures and prevented injuries, illnesses, fatalities and whether the costs associated with these adverse outcomes have been reduced or prevented. 

Innovative Training Techniques 

TNEC’s computer-based simulation tool will be integrated into an application called HazReady, developed by educational technology provider InXsol. In a small group electronic classroom, students will be able to access custom simulation scenarios, training transcripts and more via tablets, phones and computers. 

Long Legacy of Protecting Workers 

Since 1987, TNEC has received funding from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences through the national Superfund program, which pays for the cleanup of hazardous waste sites. 

Over those 29 years, TNEC has provided training to more than 2,000 New England employers and many environmental and health and safety regulatory agencies. It also provides training grants to non-profit organizations that develop and deliver health and safety training. 

TNEC is a program of UMass Lowell and a participant in the university’s Climate Change Initiative, which brings together faculty, staff, students and members of the community to address climate change through research and education.