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Hazardous To Your Health? Not If Safety Officer Has It His Way

Published: May 15, 2013

Jeff Mellon has spent a lifetime working with hazardous materials, clearly making him an expert in the field.

“Safety is our No. 1 concern,” said Mellon, CSULB’s Radiation Safety Officer (RSO) and college Chemical Hygiene Officer (CHO). “We do tons of training and we document it all. We spend a lot of time tracking people down and making sure they’ve been trained because it’s simply that important.”

Now in his 27th year at CSULB, Mellon spent the previous 12 years with Thomas Gray and Associates, a hazardous material management company in Orange.

“I used to actually drive a truck here and pickup radioactive waste and provide consultation to my predecessor,” said Mellon, who plans to retire at the end of the year. “I heard there was an opening, so I jumped ship.”

And it’s been a good fit. Mellon is tough on faculty and students, not because he wants to be, but because he has to be. His toughness has even resulted in heated discussions with faculty members on occasion. But, policy is policy according to Mellon, and eventually everyone understands it’s for their own good.

“We have mandatory policies that say we have to train people,” he said, noting that human error is the single biggest reason problems occur. “We do audits to confirm they’ve been trained for what they are doing, the training was effective and that the training is well documented. We do everything we can to help them do what needs to be done. The regulations are quite complex, but we make things simple for everyone to understand; we tell them and we help them comply. Everybody’s on the same team. Thankfully, every dean I have worked for has really cared sincerely about safety. If something bad does happen we fix it so it doesn’t happen again. For every task, we work to make sure things are done safely, with the least amount of intrusion from safety personnel. I think we accomplish that.”

Mellon, whose office interacts with approximately 2,000 individuals—faculty, staff and students—says sometimes the message just does not get through.

“Some people make mistakes,” he said. “Sometimes we ask, ‘Explain how you are going to accomplish a task’ and they just don’t remember and/or get it wrong, so at that point we make sure they are retrained. We sincerely care about all these people. For those who have been doing science for decades, factoring in safety is not always natural. The new generation of scientists, however, has come up through the ranks with safety an integral part of their work. It’s so refreshing to have people who naturally embrace safety as our clients.”

A 2008 lab accident at UCLA that took the life of a student is the exact thing Mellon and his assistant John De la Cuesta, the alternate RSO, work endlessly to prevent.

“We strive every minute of every day to avoid a problem like they had at UCLA and we’re doing that now,” noted Mellon, who was a biology major at Cal State Fullerton. “We have all the mechanisms in place to make sure something like that doesn’t happen and we’ve had it in place for over 20 years.”

That accident brought into focus potential dangers inside university laboratories throughout the nation where individuals, sometimes working without proper training or supervision, handle toxic, flammable and highly reactive materials.

“With respect to radioactive materials, the university has a state license to possess and use specific radionuclides. We have to comply with the California Code of Regulations and Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations,” said Mellon, noting that inspectors can arrive unannounced at any moment and spend up to two days poring over every record. “I report to a Radiation Safety Committee and to the presidentially-delegated radiation safety program administrator (College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics Dean Laura Kingsford), but I’m the day-to-day enforcer. We inspect labs on a regular basis, that’s a lot of what we do; we do documented inspections and documented corrections—that’s all required by law. Also, faculty and staff have to provide inventories of their radioactive materials and hazardous chemicals, so we keep track of where everything is and help ensure excessive amounts or unusually dangerous materials are well known. That keeps us busy.”

“Jeff’s attention to detail and positive attitude has allowed me to shift my attention to other areas of the campus,” said George Alfaro, the campus’ environmental compliance manager. “I am always confident that he will get the job done right the first time. I always enjoy bringing regulatory inspectors by Jeff because he is always prepared and ready for anything the inspectors throw at him. He will be greatly missed when he retires as the campus will have a big pair of shoes to fill.”

“It’s been a pleasure working with Jeff as the radiation safety officer,” said biochemistry Professor Roger Acey, who runs a complex and cutting edge research lab, according to Mellon. “He’s always taken a friendly and professional approach in keeping my research group in line. We will miss him.”

“The campus Environmental Health and Safety Office (EH&S) is the supreme authority on campus when it comes to workplace safety and hazardous materials,” said Mellon. “They are a great resource. Campus policy, however, requires each dean and director to develop a health and safety program commensurate with the hazards in their specific workplaces.”

John De la Cuesta and Jeffrey Mellon
John De la Cuesta (l) and Jeffrey Mellon

Mellon and De la Cuesta work for Kingsford, so they spend a lot of time with department chairs and technical staff to affect the college safety plan, the Chemical Hygiene Plan.

“We’re very proud of our system here,” he said. “We’ve developed our own safety labeling program for the doors, we meet with facilities management people and campus police regularly to make sure they know about safety in our science areas. They are understandably concerned about the hazardous materials and equipment in the college. I believe we have a solid program and John and I get quite a bit of positive feedback.”

Since 1986 when Mellon initially arrived on campus, his office has overseen the whittling down of the number of radioisotope labs from around 25 to six, clearly guided by required regulations geared toward reducing exposures and dangers.

“If you can avoid using radioactive materials, it eliminates another layer of bureaucracy, inspections, quarterly inventories, etcetera, so right now we’re down to no more than six radioisotope labs.” said Mellon. “We are required by regulations to keep exposures and dangers as low as reasonably achievable—acronym ALARA—so we want to keep the exposures and the quantity of materials as low as possible. We constantly work with people to see if they really need that much stuff and if we can reduce their limits or reduce how much they use in a given time. We’ve gradually reduced things down. I told John we’ve almost ALARA’d ourselves out of business on the radioactive side.”

One of his office’s biggest responsibilities in recent years was the move into the new Hall of Science building, which was dedicated in September 2011. Far in advance of the actual move, Mellon and De la Cuesta had to tell everybody in the soon-to-be-vacated Peterson Hall buildings to carefully set out hazardous materials not being moved to their new location. They followed up in redistributing good chemicals to others and coordinating disposal of unwanted materials through campus EH&S. The pair had to go through every single room, drawer and cabinet then make a list of chemicals that needed to go out for disposal. Any residual contamination such as balls of mercury rolling around was flagged for remediation by EH&S or designated contractors.

“It was a big job the summer before last,” said Mellon. “Before we moved into the new building it was a ton of work. During the design process for the new building I composed hazardous materials inventories for the designers because the amount of materials you have in the building dictates the building standards that must be met. The flame breakthrough rating on doors has to match the inventory of chemicals you have.”

And while Mellon certainly deals with the obvious potential hazards on a regular basis, it’s the sometimes not-so-obvious that also grabs his attention. He gets a little nervous when he sees a faculty member rolling an old rickety three-wheeled cart down the hallway with chemicals jostling atop it or telling a young researcher, as he did years ago, he couldn’t continue to allow tea to be brewed and consumed in her lab.

“When I was first hired in there were some researchers with radioisotope labs that were allowed to have food and drink in specific corners of the lab. One of them was Dr. Kingsford and I had to tell her, ‘I’m sorry Dr. Kingsford, but you can’t have that tea pot in the lab anymore,’” said Mellon describing one of his earliest interactions with the current CNSM dean, his boss. “A lot of people who were in lower stations when I began here are now my supervisors, so it’s a good thing I was nice to them.”