skip to Main Content

School of Public Health trains field workers to be prepared for working in environmentally hazardous situations

HAZWOPER training focuses on teaching proper precautions so workers can avoid on-site chemical exposure
field researcher wears hazmat suit while collecting soil samples

The potentially far-reaching consequences of the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment that occurred on Feb. 3, 2023, highlight an important component of public health’s work—identifying and analyzing contaminants from an environmentally hazardous area. This field work provides important data that can be used to develop protocols, programs and outreach efforts that safeguard and support the affected communities.

Yet, these undertakings also can put field workers’ health at risk. To help mitigate these risks, the Texas A&M Superfund Research Center, which includes faculty from Texas A&M University School of Public Health and Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, offers annual Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) training to prepare field workers to avoid chemical exposure when they are on site.

The initial 40-hour training and follow-up refreshers are required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for workers engaged in hazardous waste clean-up and related activities.

“This training offers workers the knowledge and skills to identify, evaluate and control their risk as it relates to the challenges in these work situations,” said Annamarie Bokelmann, an instructional assistant professor at the School of Public Health, who organizes the HAZWOPER training.

Initially offered by the Superfund Research Center in 2019 and reinstituted in 2021 and 2022 after COVID-19 restrictions eased, the training combines lectures, workshops and hands-on activities that focus on the identification, evaluation and control of health and safety risks caused by hazardous waste clean-up and related situations.

These trainings provide peace of mind to field workers like Mariana Saitas, a toxicology doctoral student working in the School of Public Health.

“The full training was eye-opening because I learned about the regulations, what to expect on site, and the planning process,” the native of Austin, Texas, said. “I also learned about the various protective equipment and their uses. Depending on the level of the disaster and the exposure, you can be OK with just a respirator, but in some cases, you need to wear the thick suits.”

Saitas, who is part of the center’s mobile team that collects air samples for analysis, applied this training when she was deployed as part of a Texas A&M team analyzing the Ohio train derailment.

“We got fitted for respirators and also took a baseline for our lung capacity and some bloodwork,” she explained. “That way, we could tell whether we experienced any significant changes in our health after we went there to sample.”

The trainings also support field workers who are collecting samples in less publicized situations.

“Environmental-related disasters are occurring frequently, and these acute events can cause a variety of adverse health outcomes,” said Natalie Johnson, PhD, associate professor at the School of Public Health and vice chair of the Interdisciplinary Program in Toxicology. “For example, an air pollutant release from a wildfire or a tank that catches on fire can cause a lot of different health impacts such as asthma.”

The training’s guidance supported Leanne Fawkes, DrPH, while she was a School of Public Health graduate student doing field work in Houston’s Fifth Ward and Georgia. Now a postdoctoral research fellow, she’s imparting those lessons to Master of Public Health epidemiology students at the University of Delaware.

“Safety is a top concern of mine,” she explained. “I want to be confident that I can teach my students safety, whether that’s brownfield sampling, neighborhood sampling or possibly going on a Superfund site.”

And she wants students to use those lessons to inform their daily lives.

“The wildfires in Quebec are impacting the Air Quality Indices we’re experiencing in Delaware,” Fawkes said. “I communicated to my students that they should consider limiting their time outdoors and wear PPE during this period. We know that wildfire smoke is carcinogenic and recent research shows the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from wildfire smoke interact with UV radiation to create benzene and formaldehyde compounds in the atmosphere. In response, we paused our sampling responsibilities until the AQI improved.”

Media contact: Dee Dee Grays,, 979.436.0611

Dorian Martin

SPH - Director of Communications and Alumni Affairs

Back To Top