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Danger zone

Exposure to contaminants results from lack of knowledge

Jennifer McPhee
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Aug 07/02) - Wearing blue, splash-proof hooded Tyvec jumpsuits and yellow rubber boots, and breathing through oxygen masks, they head into the contaminated site to identify hazards.

NNSL Photo

Lisa Dyer leaves the simulation site and enters the "decontamination zone." Her boots are cleaned before she carefully discards other items, starting from the most contaminated to the least. - Jennifer McPhee/NNSL photo

They are on guard for live electrical wires and pools of unknown liquid.

They know better than to trust the labels on barrels of chemicals. And they know the signal to make if anyone's tank runs out of oxygen.

The day before someone did run out of oxygen. At the same time, someone else collapsed of heat stroke.

"It got really crazy," said Carole Mills, manager of the contaminants division for the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs (DIAND).

Right now, Lisa Dyer is using a special meter to read what chemicals are present and determine if drums are leaking.

She's checking for potentially explosive situations.

"We've got a hit over here," she tells the others and that message is relayed by radio to those outside the zone.

In this case, it's only and exercise. There are no real hazardous chemicals here.

The simulated exercise, part of a 40-hour contaminated site operations, health and safety training course offered by DIAND. It took place last week in a fenced-in area at a DIAND-owned building near the airport.

The oxygen tanks are filled in a way that it's possible someone could run out of oxygen.

And situations like someone collapsing of heat stroke are manufactured to teach participants how to react in real-life situations.

This course teaches how to go into a contaminated site safely and identify what's there. It's the first time this course has been offered in the North.

Unlike in the United States, there is no Canadian legislation requiring those working in contaminated sites to take this course.

"But we think it's a good idea," says Mills.

"Each site has its own problems," explains Scott Mitchell, head of contaminated sites.

"People get exposed to toxic chemicals because they don't have the knowledge. They go up to a drum of unknown liquid, take the bun off it and take a sniff," he said.

"You can get killed that way."

"Never go by the labels, never go by what the can looks like," he said.

"Even a drum that says gas may have highly toxic chemicals inside it."

During the exercise Joella Hogan recorded the chemicals found at the site.

She believes she needs more preparation before working at an actual site. But she's one step closer now.

"It's definitely a confidence builder," said Hogan.