An Education in Safety

Programs around the U.S. tailor safety training to fit a wide range of students, professionals and novices
By Erin Voegele | November 22, 2011

A biodiesel plant is essentially a chemical refinery. Regardless of the specific technology employed, each facililty houses flammable liquids, chemicals, boilers and other pieces of potentially hazardous equipment. It is essential that professionals working in those facilities are well versed in safety procedures. This is important in order to not only protect the plant employees and assets, but also to ensure the safety of the local community.

While employees do receive ongoing safety training on the job, it is helpful for new hires to have an understanding of safety procures and concerns before setting foot on the job site. To help prepare their students for the workforce, biofuels training programs available at community colleges and universities embed safety into all aspects of a program’s curriculum. 

Iowa Central Community College has been home to one such biofuels training program. Although the program, which had been in operation for several years, has been put on hiatus due to decreased enrollment numbers, ICCC is still training students to enter the biofuels space via a slightly more broad-based training program that focuses on biotechnology. “We are incorporating some of the biofuels aspects into our biotechnology program, because we think that really covers some of the main ideas in terms of what employers are looking for,” says Julie Ehresmann, an advanced instructor of science at ICCC. She also notes that ICCC is home to a BQ-9000-certified biodiesel testing center, and that the college is absolutely open to reinstituting the biofuels program in the event student interest increases.

When the biofuels program was still active, members of industry helped shape its scope. “The feedback that we’ve gotten for the biodiesel industry is that they think safety is probably their top concern in terms of what they want students to know coming into their plants,” Ehresmann says. “There are many techniques and job skills they can probably teach on the job, but they want somebody coming in with a really good understanding of the safety aspects of working there. They definitely always bring that up to us when we’ve had discussions in the past. All of our courses have an emphasis on safety.”

OSHA Training

According to Ehresmann, ICCC offers a one-credit OSHA training course that allows students to earn an OSHA 10 certificate. Having the certificate seems to make potential employees more attractive. “I know the companies really want candidates with that training,”she says.

ICCC’s OSHA training courses are taught by Thomas Anderson, the college’s safety coordinator and an adjunct instructor. According to Anderson, he tailors the components of each OSHA class to reflect the skills students in a particular program will need to know. The class he has taught as part of the biofuels training emphasizes laboratory safety. We also address hazardous communication, he says. That means he educates his students on the “right to know” law that ensures employees the right to know what chemicals they will be exposed to in the workplace. “We talk about fire safety, what to do for evacuations, and the different things that are in the OSHA outreach guidelines,” he says. “We talk about electrical, and how a lab is supposed to be set up. We talk about ladder safety and fall protection,” he added, as well as a variety of other regulations.

One clear impact of the OSHA training is that injuries and instances on campus have dropped, Anderson says. The reason for the reduction of incidents is likely that students simply have an increased awareness of steps they can take to ensure their own safety, both in class and on the job.
Minnesota West Community and Technical College also offers students an opportunity to undergo OSHA training. Minnesota West offers both a two-year biofuels program, and a one-year certificate program that is focused on biodiesel. According to Rose Patzer, a biofuels technology instructor at the college, Minnesota West’s two-year program has been in existence for more than a decade.

Patzer notes it is extremely important that safety is addressed in all aspects of a student’s training. “I come from a research environment, and in a laboratory that is always upfront,” she says. “You can’t allow for carelessness. The same thing goes in a plant.”

“Safety, in any kind of lab application, is always No. 1,” Patzer says. A lot of Minnesota West’s students complete the biofuels programs online. To help provide safety training to those students, a one-credit OSHA training program is also offered via the Internet. “We hit about 22 of the OSHA standards,” says Patzer. “The students watch an online video and take quizzes and do unit or group exams.” The class includes components related to safety orientation, fall protection, confined space, electrical safety, personal protective equipment, fire safety, and forklift safety.

Patzer says that while students who complete the online course do gain valuable skills, they do not currently receive an OSHA 10 certificate for their efforts. This is because she says she cannot be 100 percent certain of who is sitting behind the computer screen actually completing that course. Plans are in the works, however, to establish a testing method that would allow online students to earn the OSHA certificate. “What I’m considering is proctored exams,” Patzer says. For example, students who complete the online components of the OSHA training might be able to go to their local public library to take a supervised evaluation. She says that developing this type of testing method will be a focus of the next academic year.

Simulating Danger

While OSHA safety skills are imperative to any employee working in an industrial setting, those who wish to work in biodiesel plants should also have a good understanding of the specific hazards they might face, and how to most effectively deal with rare emergency situations. Learning these skills can be difficult in a real-world environment as students cannot gain hands-on experience.

A simulation program developed by a team at Iowa State University is helping students gain those needed emergency response skills. The Interactive Biorefinery Operations Simulator is modeled after real biofuels plants in Iowa, including one owned by Renewable Energy Group Inc.

The I-BOS essentially functions like a flight simulator. “We’ve tried to make this program replicate an actual plant environment,” says David Grewell, an ISU associate professor who led the development of I-BOS. “The layout is very similar, the monitors are similar, the software is similar, the way the alarms interact and the way you interface with the software is similar,” he explains.

While the program allows students to respond to and remediate production issues that they are likely to encounter at a biorefinery, such as feedstock contamination, it can also be used to train and evaluate disaster response.

Using the I-BOS, Grewell says students can be trained and prepared to deal with standard emergencies. “How fast do they respond to an alarm that goes off that indicates there is a fire somewhere?” he poses. “And, do they take the proper actions?”

I-BOS is currently utilized primarily by students enrolled in ISU’s Biorenewable Resources and Technology program. However, it is possible the program may be made available to the public via the Internet in the future. That, Grewell says, has always been the goal, but he wants to ensure that all the bugs are worked out of the program before it is made available to the public. “I still don’t feel it’s quite ready,” he says. “The students are still finding bugs playing with it.”

The Future of Biodiesel Education

While opportunities for biodiesel education abound, fewer students are showing interest in the programs right now. Ehresmann says that is too bad, especially because industry is showing strong demand for workers. “We get calls all the time from potential employers wanting people, and we have far more demand than we have had people graduating from the program,” she says. “We were really disappointed we couldn’t offer the program this year because we see a demand for it.”

While Minnesota West’s biofuels program is still active, Patzer also notes that enrollment is down significantly. One reason for the drop in enrollment is likely the volatility that the biodiesel industry has experienced over the past few years. Students might not see working in biofuels as a potentially stable career move.

Patzer points out, however, that there are concrete benefits that plant employees who graduate from a training program can attain. While everyone starts out at the bottom as new hire with no experience, those who have graduated from a biofuels training program tend to rise through the ranks of a plant more quickly, she says. Those potential employees are also given preference over someone with no training during the hiring process.

Ehresmann also notes that she continues to encourage students to consider a career in biodiesel. “I always push students in that direction because I think the biodiesel industry is going to survive all of this turmoil,” she says. “I also tell my students that they are really nice companies to work for. They are not just trying to get everything out of an employee that they can. They want you to learn something along the way, which makes you more valuable as an employee.”

Author: Erin Voegele
Associate Editor, Biodiesel Magazine
(701) 540-6986



Small-Scale Safety

Safety is not only a concern at the industrial level, it is also an important concern for small-scale producers who manufacture biodiesel on the home- or farm-scale for personal use. Educating this demographic of producers has been one goal of the National Biodiesel Education Program at the University of Idaho.

USDA sponsors the National Biodiesel Education Program. Jon Van Gerpen, director of the University of Idaho’s program, notes that there are two groups who cooperate with the USDA on the initiative: UI and the National Biodiesel Board.

The NBB has done a great job of producing safety training videos to serve industrial producers, focusing on things such as methanol fire safety and fire marshal training. Van Gerpen and his team recognized a need for similar education materials for home producers and set out to produce an educational video.

“I think the largest issue that we were concerned with had to do with fire safety,” Van Gerpen says. “In a commercial plant, all of the wiring and equipment is rated for use in a hazardous location. The wiring would be explosion-proof wiring, and it would be very difficult to find sources of flame or ignition sources for starting a fire.” In a situation where someone is making biodiesel in their garage, however, the type of equipment is not as intrinsically safe. “If somebody happens to have a hot water heater in their garage, that could be an ignition source to ignite the methanol vapors,” he says. “We just wanted to make sure that people are aware of the risk and that they take proper precautions.”

The training video has been downloaded and watched many thousands of times, Van Gerpen says. He also notes that home production of biodiesel does not seem to be especially hazardous. While we sometimes hear news reports of tragic accidents, those events are actually fairly few and far between. “Compared to the number of people making the fuel,” he says, “there are very few incidents.”

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