Flying Under the Radar Suits S...

Flying Under the Radar Suits Safety Services Group

Most groups take pride in gaining recognition for their efforts. For the Health, Environment and Safety Services (HESS) at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), however, this is not the case. “Success is best measured by not being noticed by the institution, it means we’re doing our jobs,” says Milenda Powers the team’s manager.

Those at National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and UCAR, NCAR’s managing body, typically see Powers at fire drills and building inspections, and commonly call on her colleague, Bob Wiley, when having ergonomic issues – or to avoid these issues – caused by spending too much time in front of a computer screen. Fewer may know of HESS’s Anna Vasilyeva, who manages use of chemicals used in UCAR laboratories, research projects, ensuring safe use, control, and disposal.

But Powers, Wiley, and Vasilyeva have much more going on then this – so much so that the size of the team belies their institutional impact. They ensure UCAR building safety, which put them front and center during Boulder’s 2012 wild fires. They design and administer field project safety strategies for NCAR and the university consortium that NCAR and UCAR serve. They monitor travel by NCAR and UCAR workers, keeping track of disease outbreaks, such as global flu strains or epidemics such as severe acute respiratory syndrome(SARS), to ensure the health of travelers and to ensure that unintended contagion is not spread upon a traveler’s return to Boulder. They also provide safety training on commonly used equipment, such as cranes (which move heavy research equipment) and meteorological (met) towers.      

For example, both Powers and Wiley instruct employees on what to expect during field campaigns from an equipment-safety perspective. Many field campaigns set up met towers, which are layered with devices that take detailed atmospheric readings. Installing and monitoring this equipment typically requires use of harnesses and lanyards to keep personnel secure as they climb or use their hands to get their jobs done. Setting up a tower several times a year, Wiley demonstrates proper use of the required safety equipment both to internal and university research staff.

Each project has designated field officers who keep in touch with the HESS team, says Powers. Powers typically does the field assessments on behalf of a project, identifying the scope of safety needs in advance of the project launch, engaging the research leaders with questions about what they need to get done, and the environment in which they expect to operate. Based on this input, she designs the scope of safety requirements. Having helped keep projects safe for many years all over the world, Powers has a deep familiarity with much of the research equipment and what safety concerns might arise.   

“The research environment is a big X factor, as is knowing how this will affect the equipment and the personnel,” Powers explains. “For instance, towers have been used in many campaigns taking place in desert environs, but conditions vary depending on where you are the world.”

For example, researchers supported by the Earth Observing Laboratory (EOL) have run air quality experiments in Mexican deserts, examined monsoon phenomena in the U.S. Southwest’s desert regions, and studied large-amplitude mountain waves east of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. With a dry landscape and towers being the constant factors in these equations, proximity to a city, type of instrumentation, local conditions, personnel, the research problem, and research needs generated different safety concerns. This reality makes a site inspection to review safety and health needs a key element of every project, not least so the team can identify work-arounds as needed to address a given site’s unique challenges.

“Normally, we train people in how to use various safety equipment, such as harnesses to keep them safe when climbing on scaffolding,” says Wiley. “But the 2013 Southeast Atmosphere Study, for example, required a larger-than-normal scaffolding tower and safety equipment alone would not address the risk. So, over a month and a half, we worked with EOL’s Design and Fabrication shop to engineer out risk of fall; to meet regulatory standards, our scaffolding design included safety railings and toeboards.”

As important as the off-site work is to developing a safe research environment, equally critical is a safe working and research environment within UCAR and its buildings. Among the issues that HESS addresses, chemical safety is a high priority for the team. This includes the handling of hazardous chemicals, with requirements ranging from eye and face protection to use of lab coats, and functional exhaust systems. Not only does Vasilyeva work with and talk to researchers and others about the broad risks of using chemicals, but she is responsible for properly documenting the chemicals.

“Recently, an internationally agreed-upon system for standardizing and harmonizing the classification and labeling of chemicals has been developed, and we are responsible for ensuring that the institution is aware of and understands the new system,” Vasilyeva says.

In addition to identifying and communicating things related to chemical hazards, the team also ensures proper chemical disposal and the required documentation for chemical disposal. Complicating the issue, Vasilyeva has to keep up on changes in regulations and new standards. Because she deals with more than 4,000 chemicals, this proves more challenging than one might imagine. Vasilyeva has to develop a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for all chemicals on site, documenting what the hazards are and what to do if someone – or the environment – is exposed to the chemicals, as well as creating all hazardous posts for the labs.

A lot of time goes into meeting the long list of safety and health requirements demanded by UCAR, by the National Science Foundation, and by national regulations. Given its size, the group doesn’t – can’t – achieve its mission without help. It finds this help in the UCAR/NCAR Safety and Security committee. The committee includes 25 members, with every member representing a single division or program from each of the labs and programs within NCAR and UCAR. Reps help communicate a variety of safety issues to their divisions and programs and help identify and fix safety issues. They act as the eyes and ears for the HESS team, enlarging the group’s view and becoming involved in review of risks specific to their programs. In many cases, they become the face of safety for new employees.

“Some people may perceive our job as an impediment to getting things done, but we strive to find ways to say ‘Yes’ related to projects and safety requests as often as we can. Sometimes this simply requires, ‘Yes, if we do this when this sort of thing happens,’” says Powers.