Nick Vent On Staying Safe in the Workplace

By Kelly Davis

Name: Nick Vent
Courses taught: Hazardous Materials

Nick Vent can tell some great stories about the early days of hazardous waste identification and disposal. A retired supervisor with San Diego County’s emergency response team, he’s been teaching for Extension’s OSHA Training Institute Education Center since the early '90s. He got his start as a fearless lab chemist, helping fire departments figure out what kind of sketchy materials they were dealing with and was at the right place at the right time when local, state and federal governments started getting serious about hazardous waste. His advice for folks interested in entering the field? “Don't narrow your perspective…. Don’t limit yourself on what you can do. And have fun.”

How did you get started in your career field?
Do you want the funny story or the actual story? I was a lab chemist in the ’70s and we had local fire departments around us who learned that Nick was stupid enough to come out and play. So, every now and then, we'd get a fire engine pulling up in front of the chem lab and the captain would come in and say, “Can one of your chemists come out and help us figure out what the stuff is?” And my boss would look over and say, “You want to go play?” and I’d say, “Sure!” I’d go out and hop on the truck and we’d drive out to some storage unit or whatever and we’d figure out what the labels were and what things were on and they'd bring me back to the lab. That was fun. Then I went to work for treatment storage and disposal facilities and learned that what I really liked doing was the emergency response — the clean ups and taking care of disasters. And then in ’86, the County of San Diego opened up the position and I'd already established myself with all the hazmat players… because I’d bail them out of problems all the time. So, when a position opened up, I jumped on it, and I was with the county ever since. So, basically, I went from a lab chemist job where I mixed test tubes to a chemist job where I mixed tanker trucks.

What did you most enjoy about your profession?
What I really enjoyed about it was being able to make an immediate difference in someone's life. I wasn’t there to do issue a citation or a violation or an order to do an inspection. I was there to help them with some kind of a serious problem — I’d work with them on one of the worst days of their lives to keep things from blowing up, make things go away, keep people from being hurt further. I retired when it became too much paperwork and too many administrative constraints.

What advice would you give someone looking to enter this career field?
I talk to a lot of people that say, “I’m going to be a chemist. What can I do with that?” And it's really a matter of what can't you do with it? When I started, I was a lab chemist. Hazmat didn't even exist. But taking my safety background, taking my chemistry background, I was positioned really well for what I was doing. Someone coming into this field, don’t close your eyes; don't narrow your perspective. There is so much in the hazmat field, the response field. You might work for a fire department, a police department, a health department. You might work for private industry. You might work for a company handling their hazardous waste. Don't limit yourself on what you can do. And have fun — make sure you enjoy it. When I was doing responses, I'd bounce up out of bed every day. I was excited to go to work and then when it became administrative meetings, it wasn't quite as fun anymore.

How is your field changing?
What we used to do in the ’80s is light years different than what we do now. Technology has come a long way; we’re able to do much more field identification. Before, I could play wet chemist out there and get close to what [a substance] was. But now I can point instruments at it that will read me the information within minutes.

The regulatory constraints are much higher now. Back in the '80s, it was pretty common to turn to a fire crew and say, “Wash this off to the side of the road,” and then we'd leave. Now it's completely assess, mitigate, return back to normal habitat. There's a lot more regulatory oversight, but a lot more technology to help make it faster and easier for us. There's a lot of information now that we never had before.

What do you like most about teaching for Extension?
Working with other professionals in the industry. Being able to come in and share background, share understanding. Every class I’ve ever taught, the students teach me something. I’m always always learning. Even when I’m teaching, I’m learning something new. It’s remarkable, the caliber of people that UC San Diego Extension draws in.

As an expert in the field, Nick Vent has a lot of experience in managing the chaos that can occur in a high hazard area. Here are a few of his words of wisdom in a handy infographic:

Learn more about the OSHA Training Institute Education Center and the programs and courses that we offer including Nick Vent's Hazardous Materials course.

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