OSHA's hazardous waste operations and emergency response (Hazwoper) standard probably contains the most demanding training requirements of any safety, health, or environmental regulation. Yet when you talk with firms that provide this training, it appears almost no one ever fails.

What gives?

It's analogous to grade inflation in American high schools. Teachers are pressured by parents and school administrators to pass students and give them high grades. Similarly, an employer who sends an employee through Hazwoper training wants that person qualified to perform Hazwoper work. There's pressure on Hazwoper "schools" to make it happen.

No doubt there are some excellent and high-quality Hazwoper training firms out there. Unfortunately, they face a sticky business dilemma. If they maintain high-quality standards and fail students, they risk losing business to low-roaders. We all lose when this happens.

Grade inflation only provides a short-term sense of accomplishment. Eventually you have to prove competency. For high school students, this may mean that they really are not smart enough to pass an entrance exam and get into the college of their choice. Hazwoper employees may be betting their life on being competent.

Instructors and employers also face a major risk by passing all Hazwoper students. The Hazwoper standard specifies that an instructor and employer must certify that a student successfully completed training and is competent to work at hazardous waste operations or respond to emergency situations involving hazardous materials. The term "certify" carries a high degree of responsibility. Instructors or employers that falsely certify training may be subject to criminal penalties--such as jail time--as opposed to the lesser offense of civil penalties--monetary fines that are attached to most other OSHA violations.

Requirements for accredited training

The Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) of 1986 led to the creation of OSHA's Hazwoper standard. In passing SARA, Congress clearly identified that effective and high-quality training was essential to protect workers from the many dangers present at hazardous waste operations, and from releases of hazardous materials during emergency response. To reinforce the importance of training, SARA was amended on December 22, 1987, to require accreditation of training programs.

OSHA, which was given the regulatory authority to develop training criteria mandated by SARA, issued a notice of proposed rulemaking for accrediting Hazwoper training courses on January 26, 1990. In August, 1994, OSHA issued a non-mandatory appendix E "Training Curriculum Guidelines" to its Hazwoper standard (29 CFR 1910.120 and 1926.65). These guidelines were closely patterned after recommended standards such as National Fire Protection Association standard 742, "Professional Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials Incidents."

It's been more than ten years since SARA mandated accreditation of Hazwoper training programs, but the amendment still doesn't carry the weight of law. OSHA's most recent calendar of regulatory action lists the accreditation of training programs for hazardous waste operations as a "long-term action" with no legal deadline and no date scheduled for final action. The provision may languish another ten years before it becomes a legal requirement. Until then, how do you get quality Hazwoper training?

Measuring quality

The answer to this mess primarily rests with the employer. Instead of considering cost and convenience first and quality last, the quality of the training must be the first consideration. Don't rely on ads or word of mouth. Many students in Hazwoper training may rate the course high if they were entertained and made comfortable--not on how much they really learned or comprehended.

A key tool for measuring quality is Appendix E of the OSHA Hazwoper standard. This document contains most of the questions and recommended conditions to judge a Hazwoper training program. If a training firm cannot provide you with readily available documentation on every issue in the appendix, you should drop them from consideration.

Still, Appendix E leaves some major quality issues unresolved. For example, the document states that the level of minimum achievement necessary for proficiency shall be specified by the training director. But scores for passing cannot be so low as to be meaningless. To address this possibility, an employer might want to set a policy stating that to be qualified, an employee's score must be in the top 25 percent of all students.

Since OSHA will not accredit Hazwoper training programs for many years to come, I'd be in favor of private accreditation if it's done through a reputable organization such as the American Industrial Hygiene Association or the American Society of Safety Engineers, or certifying groups such as those that issue the CIH, CSP or CHMM. An established consulting firm may also fill this capacity.

Let's not kid ourselves. Not everyone can pass every test. Certainly not everyone should be able to pass the tough subjects that are required to be understood in the Hazwoper standard. Grade inflation for Hazwoper training is dangerous. Don't take the easy way out. It's up to you and your employer to identify and support the quality training vendors. Demand high quality, and the market will respond. After all, you get what you ask for.