October 18, 2019
Margaret Mellecker is applying her diverse career experiences to educate and protect workers across the country. With a background in mechanical engineering and a secondary teaching certificate, Mellecker is comfortable in the field and in the classroom, making her uniquely positioned to train workers.
As principal investigator for the Community College Consortium for Health and Safety Training (CCCHST) at the National Partnership for Environmental Technology Education (PETE), Mellecker leads a collaborative team effort to develop and deliver training to various workers involved in the cleanup of hazardous wastes, ensuring that they are equipped to do their jobs safely.
Mellecker’s experience teaching students from the junior high to community college level has informed her approach to worker training. “You never know what a person is bringing into the classroom,” she said. “I think understanding different personalities and skill levels helps any teacher better relate to their class.”
Reaching a Diverse Student Population
Of the more than twenty consortiums and training organizations funded by the NIEHS Worker Training Program (WTP), CCCHST is the only community college consortium. Notably, CCCHST represents more than 124 training organizations in 38 states and territories to train more than 60,000 students each year.
Through WTP funding in three areas – the Hazardous Waste Worker Training Program (HWWTP), the Department of Energy Nuclear Worker Training Program, and the HazMat Disaster Preparedness Training Program (HDPTP) – CCCHST reaches students from diverse occupations and work settings. Mellecker explained that this diverse range of students requires trainers to make classes not only suitable for their target audiences, but interesting and engaging. “This really keeps the trainers and instructors on their toes,” she said.
The National Reach of the CCCHST
CCCHST is uniquely positioned to deliver hazardous waste and disaster response training, as most technician-level emergency responders and industrial workers across the nation receive their training from community colleges.
Preparing Trainers for the Classroom
One of CCCHST’s focus areas is their Train-the-Trainer program, a two-week course designed to prepare trainers to effectively teach students about Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER), spill response, and compliance-based awareness. The site of the program is Scott Community College in Bettendorf, Iowa. The program utilizes a combination of classroom lecture and hands-on training, such as mock waste sites, simulated chemical spills, computer simulations, and various exercises and games. This approach keeps the trainers engaged and provides them with resources and ideas on how to maintain student interest once they return to their own classrooms.
Mellecker said initially, many trainers are skeptical of the need for a two-week long course; however, by the end of the training they recognize the program’s incredible value in preparing them to teach a variety of topics. “There is so much content in the program, and we try to make it as realistic as possible,” said Mellecker. “Sometimes it requires some maneuvering, but we have excellent trainers who really do a great job.”
Another advantage of the CCCHST Train-the-Trainer program is the sense of comradery it promotes among trainers. Mellecker explained this creates an opportunity for instructors across the country to network and gain input or inspiration from one another on unique teaching approaches to implement in the classroom.
In addition to the two-week course, trainers are required to complete a refresher course every two years. During these refreshers, CCCHST covers other topics pertinent to health and safety training, such as addressing opioid exposure and abuse in the workplace, and how workers should handle infectious disease response. Mellecker commends WTP as an excellent resource for training on emerging and established topic areas like these.
Expanding the Scope of Worker Training
Under Mellecker’s direction, the CCCHST developed a comprehensive HAZWOPER online training program in 2013, which has received growing interest and use by consortium trainers. “The online program has proven to be an extremely useful tool for consortium members,” Mellecker said. “The program covers the 24 hours of classroom instruction which is part of a 40-hour HAZWOPER. It can be paired with 16 hours of hands-on training to provide a 40-hour HAZWOPER.” According to Mellecker, the online course has become a flexible tool that instructors can use to meet their specific circumstances. For example, the consortium has community college instructors who incorporate HAZWOPER training into a semester-long course. They often use the online modules as a prerequisite prior to presenting the materials in front of the classroom. The consortium has also had trainers use a portion of the online course blended with hands-on exercises for workers who are taking a refresher course.
“It has been interesting to see how CCCHST members have incorporated the online course into their programs,” Mellecker said. She hopes to see the online program, as well as the general reach of the consortium, expand to more workers. “There are lots of people out there that need better training and I think our consortium can help fill this need,” she said. “My ultimate vision is just safer work conditions for hazardous waste site workers, emergency responders, and really all workers. Training is key to fulfilling that goal.”