Frontline Response: Consortium Teaches Workers to Tackle Onsite Toxic Emergencies

									Charlie Plain |
																			February 13, 2015
Training students practice responding to a spill.
Training students practice responding to a spill.

Fertilizer spills on the farm. Carcinogenic solvent spills in factories. Mold outbreaks in water-damaged buildings. For more than 25 years Minnesota businesses, hospitals and community organizations have turned to the Midwest Consortium for Hazardous Waste Worker Training to learn how to quickly and intelligently respond to such emergencies.

The consortium is housed within the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota.

“As part of the continuum of public health’s work, we’re a frontline resource for intervention,” says Lois Harrison, lead education specialist for the consortium.

Educating industry

The consortium was founded in 1987 through a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

In addition to Harrison, the unit is staffed by principal investigator and professor William Toscano, program associate Jennifer Selzer and 16 subject matter experts from the community.

Unlike most other SPH education programs, the consortium’s main audience isn’t graduate or professional students.

“We’re a unique resource in the school because we work a lot with private industry,” says Harrison.

Harrison and her counterparts conduct more than 45 courses a year for companies on topics ranging from mold remediation and hazardous waste response to hospital decontamination.

Since its inception the consortium has trained more than 10,000 people across the state.

The marquee offerings are the 40-hour emergency response and waste site worker courses. These week-long trainings are geared for employees responding to onsite spills or remediating contaminated environments.

Helping hospitals

In addition to hazmat response training, the Consortium offers hospitals and health care facilities on-site training for decontaminating patients exposed to dangerous substances.

“If you have somebody arrive at a facility with chemicals all over them, they’re essentially contaminating both an ambulance and an emergency room,” says Harrison.

The training is particularly popular with rural hospitals. That’s because hospitals in those areas need to be prepared to safely handle agricultural workers who are exposed to chemicals like fertilizers and pesticides during agricultural incidents.

“They understand the challenges facing rural Minnesota health care,” says Jane Gisslen, director of emergency and urgent care services for the Mayo Clinic Health System–Red Wing. “They make the classes fun and interesting and bring a wealth of experience to the table.”

Responding to new needs, heading off new threats

An instructor demonstrates how to use a protective suit.
An instructor teaches how to use a protective suit.

With the concern about Ebola, the consortium is now training health care providers to use respirators and protective suits to guard against biological and chemical hazards.

One such provider is the Veterans Administration Hospital in Minneapolis.

“We’ve been working with the Veterans Administration Hospital because their population includes service members deployed to Ebola-affected countries as well as employees and veterans returning to the VA for their health care,” says Harrison.

In addition to Ebola-related training, the consortium will soon offer new courses to address hazardous byproducts from emerging industries like fracking and nanotechnology.

A public health service

While a majority of the consortium’s work involves providing hazmat training for paying clients, it also offers communities and groups free education for identifying chemical hazards frequently found around them.

“As an example, one of our instructors is Somali and works with community groups to provide focused training on toxic chemical awareness in the home,” says Harrison.

The consortium has also provided education to Spanish-speaking food service workers in the Twin Cities, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and industrial office building cleaners among others.

“We will provide this free outreach training to any community groups,” says Harrison.

For more information on the Midwest Consortium for Hazardous Waste Worker Training and the courses and community programs it offers, visit:

~ Post by Charlie Plain

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