UCLA staff train residents for jobs testing for lead contamination in their neighborhoods

Occupational safety and health staff conduct courses in safe hazardous waste handling

Staff at the UCLA Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program (UCLA-LOSH) are training workers to take part in a multimillion-dollar cleanup of lead contamination at up to 10,000 properties in Los Angeles near the former Exide Technologies lead battery recycling facility in Vernon.

For the first phase of this massive operation — taking soil samples at homes, schools, parks, daycare centers and small businesses located in seven southeastern L.A. County communities — UCLA-LOSH staff recently trained 30 people in two weeklong courses to handle hazardous waste safely.

All 30 trainees were unemployed or under-employed residents in the affected neighborhoods. Twenty-five of these workers have already been hired by contractors working for the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, the state agency responsible for the cleanup work. The department received $176 million from Gov. Jerry Brown to fund the operation.   

One trainee helps another put on her respirator during a field activity.

Based on the results of this sampling, the state agency plans to identify at least 2,500 high-priority properties for cleanup of lead contamination caused by air pollution from the Exide battery recycling plant, which closed in March 2015. Exide operated the Vernon facility for more than three decades with outdated pollution controls as well as air quality and hazardous waste violations, according to state officials.

Part of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, UCLA-LOSH hopes to be involved in training additional workers for both the sampling and cleanup phases, an operation that could take a total of three years or more, said Kevin Riley, UCLA-LOSH director of research and evaluation.

“Many of these trainees faced barriers to employment. A few were formerly incarcerated, others had limited education or work experience,” said Riley. “For many, this training program was transformative — it not only provided necessary knowledge and skills for securing employment, but it has given individuals the chance to become environmental stewards in their communities.”

The state agency requires that at least 40 percent of the jobs for this community cleanup be awarded to residents of the affected communities located within a 1.7-mile radius of the plant, including Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, Maywood, Huntington Park, Bell, Vernon and Commerce. Part of the agency’s funding for cleanup operations has been used to create a training and workforce development program to prepare residents for these jobs.

“This is an important step in efforts to address critical environmental and economic problems in the region,” said Linda Delp, director of UCLA-LOSH and adjunct faculty member in the Fielding School of Public Health. The program’s hazmat safety training is supported through grants from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Worker Training Program. “We are glad to have NIEHS resources to advance cleanup and workforce development initiatives,” she said.

UCLA-LOSH has received federal funding from NIEHS since 1987 to provide hazmat and emergency response-related training to workers in Southern California. The center has a long track record of providing hands-on, skills-based training to workers who may handle industrial chemicals, respond to hazmat spills or address environmental contamination.

Participants of the workforce development program receive college credit for training and work experience, access to health care and other resources, pre-employment life skills training and employment support. The first group of 30 participants was recruited in July. Classes ended Aug. 15.

“We hope to train additional cohorts next year,” Riley said. The state agency has indicated it will bring back the same training partners, including UCLA-LOSH, next year as the cleanup operation ramps up.

During the 40-hour course, UCLA staff taught trainees how to identify unknown chemical hazards, to use personal protective gear, to carry out proper air monitoring and sampling procedures and site safety plans. The highlight of the training was a field exercise in which students conducted a mock hazmat response and cleanup activity.

“We are excited that this model program at UCLA is supporting important and highly relevant environmental health and safety job training to the residents around the Exide site,” said Sharon Beard, an industrial hygienist with NIEHS.

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