Member Spotlight: NJIT Students Develop Job Skills While Managing Risk

August 2014 | 0 Comments  Average 4 out of 5

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The  New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) in Newark has grown from a small technical school to a public university with 10,000 students across 45 acres. Despite this rapid expansion, the Office of Health and Environmental Safety still has only one staff member, Dr. Norman Van Houten, its director. When it became difficult to keep up with required safety and regulatory checks, he enlisted graduate students to help, providing part-time jobs and professional training for them while increasing overall attention to safety on campus.

The student inspections started in 2008 as part of a summer project Van Houten ran. The N.J. Worker and Community Right to Know Act requires businesses that store hazardous substances to inventory those materials each year to benefit emergency responders and the public. Van Houten hired seven students to help him complete the chemical inventory and conduct laboratory safety inspections that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the state fire code require. He realized the students could also monitor slip and fall hazards and fire-code compliance as they moved around campus, so he incorporated broader monitoring responsibilities into these positions.

Increasing Safety Inside and Outdoors

The students work for NJIT’s Office of Health and Environmental Safety as graduate assistants, receiving stipends; some get scholarships from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. During the summer, seven students conduct annual chemical inventories and inspect the school’s labs. In the fall and spring semesters, five students inspect common areas—such as sidewalks, hallways, vestibules, lounges, the school pub, and the cafeteria—for safety and fire hazards. Each building’s area is checked once in spring and once in the fall.

Along the way, students get valuable training and experience in identifying fire code and OSHA regulations for industry and construction. Van Houten and more senior graduate students provide one-on-one training.

“I go through the whole aspect of the OSHA training, plus the environmental side—Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Environmental Protection regulations—and make sure they understand all the different facets of the safety profession."

—Dr. Norman Van Houten, NJIT

Over the years, the training has expanded. “I go through the whole aspect of the OSHA training, plus the environmental side— Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Environmental Protection regulations—and make sure they understand all the different facets of the safety profession,” Van Houten said. At first, he or a more senior student will accompany new students on the inspections, and Van Houten performs spot checks. Once students have enough experience, they can handle the inspections on their own.

Students also accompany the state fire marshal on inspections, providing access to locked areas. As they do so, they learn about the fire code and what constitutes a violation; blocked exits, unlit exit signs, and missing ceiling tiles can pose hazards.

When it comes to hiring, Van Houten gives priority to students in the Occupational Safety and Health Engineering program. Most of the students are getting a master’s in that field and have undergraduate degrees in chemical engineering, civil engineering, or mechanical engineering. If there aren’t enough graduate-school candidates, he may recruit from undergraduates. Typically each student serves for a semester or two.

Using the Data

Students carry a tablet that contains checklists to guide them in their inspections. Van Houten develops the checklists with staff programmers and computer majors. He generates a report based on the inspection and sends photos and descriptions of areas that need work to the physical plant department, which schedules maintenance. Students follow up a week or two after inspection to make sure problems have been corrected. The school sometimes enlists the aid of insurance brokers to help improve and update its checklists.

“I feel like a proud father, watching these kids go out and move up as they go down the road in their careers.”

—Van Houten

Van Houten uses the information from the chemical inventory to create a book for emergency responders with floor plans and information about chemicals. He keeps a copy and provides copies to police and fire departments and other emergency-response agencies. Dr. Nicholas Tworischuk, NJIT’s associate treasurer, uses the records to aid in loss control of valuable items such as precious metals. The book is updated every two years.

NJIT saves money by using graduate students for this work instead of hiring full-time employees. But the students benefit as well. “All of my students, over the years, have gone on to very good positions,” Van Houten said. OSHA contacts him for job candidates, and 14 students became federal inspectors. “It’s nice to watch the kids go,” he said. A woman who was in his first class is now his counterpart at Ramapo College, another public N.J. institution, and another student works as safety director at the World Trade Center. “I feel like a proud father, watching these kids go out and move up as they go down the road in their careers,” he said.


By Martha Spizziri, a freelance business and education writer in Boston.

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