Hazardous duty

 

Members learn to stop toxic leaks

 

What would you do if you had to deal with a toxic chemical leak? Several MEA-MFT members recently got a chance to find out.

With help from AFT and MEA-MFT, a hazardous materials training session took place in Helena this summer (2006). The session was part of a national project that trains people who might be called upon to respond during an emergency chemical release.

 

"Chemicals are everywhere, in every line of work," explained Richard Smith, the head trainer. Everyday chemicals include gasoline, drycleaning chemicals, and solvents. According to Smith, most solvents are flammable and present skin and inhalation hazards, sometimes even cancer hazards. Benzine in gasoline, a skin absorber, can cause leukemia.

Schools often have 55-gallon drums of chemicals such as cleaning bleach. "School science labs are notorious hazards," Smith said. "Chemicals age, and if they become crystallized or swollen, they can become an explosion hazard."

 

Smith, who works with the International Chemical Workers United Council, said that 55,000 Americans die each year from work-related disease caused by chemical exposure.

 

The 32-hour training session concluded with a chemical leak scenario. Participants had to choose the right gear and plug a simulated chemical leak-sulfuric acid from a 55-gallon drum.

 

Breathing like Darth Vader in their blue "hazmat" suits, teams of two worked to contain the leak to the smallest area possible and shut off the source without "contaminating" themselves or anything else.

 

"You could walk on the moon in these suits," said Richard Smith. "They're totally encapsulated."

 

Smith has trained with the project full time for the past 15 years. His team, which includes trainers from the Hanford nuclear plant, has also trained workers to deal with the chemical aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, where the nation's second largest oil spill combined with gas leaks and raw sewage to create "a lethal chemical soup."

 

The Montana public employees at this summer's training probably don't plan to deal with a lethal soup any time soon.

 

But if it happens, they will be ready to help.

 

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