PORT LAVACA, Mar 16, 2013 (Victoria Advocate - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
The handful of students sat perched at long tables, heads bowed as they jotted the dry erase board's notes.
These weren't college kids preparing for midterms or high schoolers battling out studies before spring break. They were professionals at the Safety Council of the Texas Mid-Coast, (https://www.cscportlavaca.org) training to stay safe on the job.
About 12,000 people per year make their way through the safety council, a Port Lavaca organization now in its 20th year, Executive Director Joni Brown said. The goal is to provide regulatory training for workers in the manufacturing, oil and gas and food production industries.
Located just off state Highway 35 North, the center, overseen by a 12-member board, offers testing for agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, (www.osha.gov) the Mine Safety and Health Administration (www.msha.gov) and personalized courses for area plants.
Although the bulk of the training -- it offers more than 2,000 courses -- takes place through computer and classroom instruction, at times it spans beyond that.
Hands-on crane courses, for instance, offer workers the chance to hone their skills. Meanwhile, OSHA courses geared toward ensuring workers can safely remove uniforms if sprayed with dangerous chemicals takes things to another level altogether.
Brown said instructors spray the workers with chocolate syrup. It's then up to them and their teams, she said, to get out of the suit without getting the substance on themselves.
Keeping things safe and sound
Security is key at the location, that trains some individuals who work with cyanide and other harmful chemicals and therefore face more stringent security at work.
Visitors immediately make their way to a desk, where they sign in with their Social Security number. Although that number is masked on the center's side -- organizers don't see it -- Brown said it automatically pulls up the classes for which they are preregistered.
A scanner reads the person's ID, she said, and checks it for various security measures. If the person reporting for training isn't who he says he is, that's when the sheriff's office and United States Border Patrol get involved.
Those measures extend to the on-site Twin Fountains clinic, which offers occupational health services such as vision and hearing tests and drug screening, said Kevin Gray, the clinic's lead technician.
The facility restroom where the staff carries out drug screenings, for instance, boasts of solid walls and ceilings to prevent people from hiding specimens for others' use. The toilet also includes a function that keeps a person from flushing, Gray noted, and, in more extreme cases, staff members might be asked to go in and "observe."
There will always be people, he said, who try to get away with something.
Maintaining the human element
Testing might be the organization's main thrust, but Brown said it's important to keep the human element. Snack and drink machines are available for those who need a break, she said, while artwork creates a warmer feel.
The staff, while there to keep things running properly, understand that the people there taking tests are just that: people. And sometimes difficult situations arise.
Some workers travel long distances to complete their testing, going home without a job if they don't pass, Brown said, while a 13-man crew from New Jersey was testing the day Hurricane Sandy barreled through the state. Another man from Bastrop took a break to call his family, only to learn his home had burned down in the city's 2011 wildfires.
"We told him, 'If you need to stop or need to go to be with your family, do what you need to do,'" Brown said. "But he looked at us, and he was crying. He said, 'Lady, I need a job now like never before. I need to do what I can now.'"
Looking ahead, moving forward
With time comes change, and the center is no exception.
In mid-2012, the company moved to its new facility which, at 22,000 square feet, is about four times the former building's size. New training opportunities and security measures also come into play as they become available.
That expansion was important, as the facility works to meet growing industrial needs, said Robert De Leon, the safety council's board president. And, if the center doesn't have the training a company needs, that can change.
"We have a department that develops training and does what it can to meet customers' needs," said De Leon, who works with Dow Chemical. "If we don't have what they need, we'll develop it."
Brown said the facility will soon switch to a new system that eliminates Social Security numbers from the process. A new program will also allow for multiple last names, as many Mexican workers -- a growing population utilizing the training center -- adopt both their father's and mother's last name.
Further change will likely join the mix, Brown said, and that's fine. Just as long as the center sticks to its No. 1 goal: safety.
"Safe behavior gets them home to their families at the end of the day," Brown said. "And that's what we want."
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