In the movies, when the hazmat guys show up in their intimidating panel trucks, decked out head to toe in impermeable safety suits, you just know the plot is about to take an exciting twist. Someone’s suit will get torn, exposing them to a killer virus, or a chemical bomb will go off, leveling a city block — the hazmat guys’ screen time rarely seems to end well.
As is often the case when Hollywood portrays a lesser-known profession, movie depictions of hazardous materials professionals aren’t completely accurate. While there may be moments of intensity or excitement, when life and death balances on the professional’s expertise and the integrity of his or her hazmat suit, the reality is often more ordinary.
Strange but true … and kind of ordinary
Jeff Christensen, hazardous waste supervisor for the University of Arizona, tells a story that captures the sometimes mundane, sometimes thrilling and often wacky nature of hazardous materials handling. Christensen was once called to a university mail room to retrieve a suspicious package — a cardboard box with the name of a well-known steak and chop seller imprinted on the outside.
No one knew who’d shipped the box or how it ended up on campus. It could hold anything — explosives or Anthrax, a corrosive chemical or rotted meat.
Christensen and his assistant removed the box to a hazmat facility off campus. Inside the cardboard container was an ordinary Styrofoam cooler with the lid glued shut. After prying off the lid, they found inside a bundle tightly swaddled in plastic wrap. Upon cutting through the first layers of the bundle, they encountered a layer of goo that emitted a familiar aroma, one they just couldn’t place.
Finally making it through multiple layers of plastic wrap, Christensen and his partner found 30 pounds of marijuana.
An enterprising student had realized how easy it would be to slip a box unnoticed into the campus mailroom, through which a massive amount of parcels moved each day. Addressed to a fictitious location in a distant state, the box was meant to be intercepted before reaching its fake destination. Somehow, however, it ended up back in the mailroom … and in Christensen’s hands.
And the pleasant-smelling goo? The shipper had added liquid fabric softener to the package, counting on its strong aroma to throw off any drug-sniffing dogs that might encounter the box.
The reality of hazardous materials handling
From day to day, hazardous materials professionals may be called upon to remove chemical or biological-waste items from offices or labs; package chemical agents for shipment; complete the necessary paperwork and turn the package over to a qualified delivery service; or even train graduate students to properly handle hazards materials in a lab environment.
However, all these seemingly mundane tasks are critical to public safety, and they help ensure corporations and universities remain compliant with numerous regulations that govern the handling, storage, disposal, shipping and transportation of hazardous materials and controlled substances.
Putting hazmat in perspective
The U.S. Department of Transportation defines a hazardous material as “a substance or material, including a hazardous substance, which has been determined by the Secretary of Transportation to be capable of posing an unreasonable risk to health, safety, and property when transported in commerce, and which has been so designated.” In its Hazardous Materials Transportation Guide, the department lists 20 different classes of hazardous materials, including corrosive and combustible liquids or solids, flammable liquids and solids, gases and biological substances. Multiple federal and state regulations govern the handling, shipping and transportation of hazardous materials, including:
- Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations.
- Hazardous Material Transportation Act of 1975 (HMTA).
- Hazardous Materials Transportation Uniform Safety Act of 1990.
Authority for regulating the handling and movement of hazardous materials overlaps among multiple government agencies, including the DOT, OSHA and EPA.
For hazardous materials professionals, ensuring their organizations remain compliant with all regulations can be more pulse-pounding than that moment in a movie when the hazmat-suited hero realizes he’s handling a substance with catastrophic havoc-wreaking potential.
Hazardous materials in university settings
Universities have always been on the forefront of scientific discovery, and the experiments that lead to world-altering revelations often involve handling and transporting hazardous materials. These substances can be chemical in nature — in liquid, gas or solid forms — biological or even radioactive. Shipping regulated substances can be especially challenging in a university setting, where researchers in different disciplines may need to ship a variety of regulated substances each year.
When it comes to compliance, “most people want to do the right thing,” says Christensen. “And once they know what the right thing is, they do it.”
However, often researchers and technicians well versed in how to safely handle controlled materials in a laboratory setting are unaware of concerns and regulations governing the shipping of those same materials. They may be unsure of how to properly package hazardous materials for safe, compliant transport, or even which carrier is rated to handle that particular substance.
At the recent College and University Hazardous Materials Management Conference in Miami, Christensen sat down with eShipGlobal to discuss challenges of hazardous materials handling and shipping in a university setting, and to foreshadow emerging trends in the industry.
Christensen offered insight into some common campus challenges:
Anyone who handles or otherwise comes in contact with hazardous materials requires multiple types of safety training. Hazardous materials professionals in university roles need to know not only how to effectively protect themselves by using hazmat suits and other safety equipment, but they also must be trained in how to ship and dispose of a range of hazardous materials — all while maintaining compliance with myriad regulations.
Necessary skills can include lab safety, animal care and control, environmental safety principles, procedures for testing and sampling a range of hazardous substances, how to calibrate and maintain equipment, identify biohazards and how to prepare reports. A variety of courses, including online options, aim to teach hazardous materials professionals the vast array of skills they need to be effective.
Training is also necessary for others on campus who will work with or encounter hazardous substances. Christiansen offers in-person training courses to students and university staff in departments where hazardous materials will be used.
In the 1990s, Christiansen once received a call from a retiring researcher. The soon-to-be-former professor asked Christiansen to retrieve and dispose of a hazardous sample the researcher had stored. The sample was in a canister in an unlocked refrigerator in an unsecured equipment room that, Christiansen says, “anybody could get into.”
“I went over there and grabbed the canister, and I was walking out of that building with a can of ricin,” he recalls. Ricin is a highly toxic poison made from the seeds of the castor plant. It looks very much like table salt and inhaling just a few grains of it can kill a person within a few days. There is no cure for ricin poisoning.
Despite multiple layers of security and protocols, universities have always struggled with inventory control. Hazardous materials professionals don’t always know what researchers have in every department of a university, and records-keeping can break down on many levels. When that happens, compliance and safety can be compromised.
In the olden days of university research, many researchers had the attitude “it’s not science unless we’ve got a casualty list,” notes Christiansen, who’s been in hazardous materials handling for nearly 30 years.
That attitude is phasing out of the university research environment, he says, thanks in part to better safety regulations. Millennials, who are becoming more prevalent in research capacities, are also more focused on safety, he notes.
Although safety will always be a primary concern for hazardous materials handling on university and college campuses, “it’s getting easier” to communicate its importance to students and researchers, Christiansen says.
Regulations for procuring, storing, handling and shipping hazardous substances require a paper trail that should follow the material as it moves from point to point. In particular, the paperwork and forms necessary for shipping hazardous materials either domestically or internationally can be complex and burdensome.
More international students than ever before are studying in the United States. Many will be in research capacities where they may come in contact with hazardous materials. Problems can arise when students come from a culture with little or no safety regulations and then encounter the highly regulated environment of American labs.
“The potential for calamity is there,” Christiansen notes, adding that typically, international students adapt quickly to a highly regulated environment once they’re trained to properly handle hazardous materials.
Although inventory controls may be imperfect and the need for safety training will always exist, security in the post 9/11 world remains both a priority and a challenge for universities.
University campuses are made up of public buildings, and the federal government is the largest source of funding for the basic research that takes place on university campuses, according to the Association of American Universities. Their public nature makes universities especially difficult to secure completely, and that includes labs and storage areas where hazardous materials can be found.
Security challenges and failure to follow protocols established by the university can create an opportunity for mistakes or intentional acts that could endanger the public.
“Overall, I think that most people can be trusted,” Christiansen said. “They have professional pride. But there are always going to be things that need to be worked on.”
Looking toward the future
As the role of hazardous materials professionals continues to evolve at universities, certain trends are likely to continue emerging.
- Training requirements will continue to change and grow.
- The need for centralized shipping and purchasing of hazardous materials will gain wider attention and acceptance.
- The millennial influence will grow and continue to shape attitudes toward safety and security.
- Waste minimization will be an increasing priority, as university research departments focus on reducing the amount of hazardous waste that needs to be handled and disposed of.
- The potential for security and terrorism will continue to drive new security policies and procedures.
For the most part, Christiansen says, universities and their hazardous materials professionals have been doing a good job.
“The track record is good,” he notes. “But there always has to be vigilance, and there are always ways we can improve.”
By: Evelyn Pimplaskar