Musing on UST Operator Training by Ben Thomas

August 8, 2013

Ben Thomas had an article published in NEIWPCC’s BensMusings and below is the article as well.

June 2013 • LUSTLine Bulletin 73

In May 2009, I delivered what I believe was the nation’s first live, online state-approved Class A/B UST operator webinar. From the comfort of my Washington-based office, I was able to guide 35 or so slightly bewildered Colorado operators through everything from tank registration to spill bucket cleaning. I say “bewildered” because most operators had never sat through a webinar, much less one that contained over six hours of screen time. These students, a tad skeptical at first, quickly found that online learning wasn’t so bad. They could watch, listen, ask questions, and ultimately (hopefully) learn something—even though they might have been wearing their fuzzy bunny slippers and hugging their favorite coffee mug. The most common comment I received back then was, “Boy, I thought this was going to be terrible!”

Roll the clock ahead four years to the present day. It’s past the training deadline for most states and thousands of Class A/B operators and tens of thousands of Class C operators have been trained without entering the traditional brick-and- mortar classroom. Many are still a bit bewildered when they enter. But are they educated when they log off?

Does It Work?

The big question remains: Does using the Internet to deliver training improve UST compliance? Are spill buckets cleaner? Are there fewer leak detection violations? Fewer leaks? Alarms? If the instructor can’t see the student, does learning really occur? Once they leave the virtual classroom, do the students become more virtuous tank operators? Whether online or in the classroom, I do believe that training that engages the student tends to have a longer lasting impact. In my experience, having trained several thousand operators, both live and by webinar, I’ve noticed that webinar students tend to engage more when asked questions. And it helps to ask lots of questions and badger them to reply. I suspect engagement is higher overall in a webinar because people are less intimidated to hazard a guess or ask a question if no one is looking at them, as in a traditional classroom setting. In fact, when we polled operators after class the majority said it was at least as good as a live class—and this from a population of largely first-time webinar attendees. I will admit that it can be harder to engage students online than in a classroom, but I believe that student engagement is key to achieving the goals of any kind of training program—UST operator training included.

Most of the research I’ve done concerning live versus web training focuses on whether one approach is better than the other, based on testing student scores, not on performance or behavior change. All states have some level of field inspection program in place, so we have an opportunity in these field visits to measure UST operator training against the gold standard for any training program: Does training change behavior?

With the federal UST operator training deadline less than a year behind us, I think it’s too early to tell if web-based training, classroom, or any other method of training for that matter has advanced the cause of improving UST operational compliance. (A LUSTLine article I wrote for LL#58, September 2008, suggested that was the case for Oregon, the first state to adopt rules and have a history of compliance data after the deadline.) Hopefully, time will tell. But I’m not optimistic that we’ll ever have hard numbers to show.

After a quarter century of leak detection regulations in place, westill don’t have hard numbers forhow well specific methods of leak detection work. While USEPA will be compiling state data on operational compliance, will anyone be documenting to what we can attribute any of the observed trends? Will there be any attempt to evaluate the effectiveness of the many different approaches to operator training that have blossomed across the country? Will there be any attempt to assess the compliance rate with operator training requirements? Will we find out whether effective enforcement of operator training rules plays a role in achieving compliance with the requirements that operators are supposed to be learning about through training?

What Keeps Me Going

I don’t pretend to have any hard data on training effectiveness, but I am heartened by occasional anecdotal evidence that learning does alter behavior. As I was preparing this article, I received the following email from an operator who’d participated in our training:

Thanks for the training. We did a once over of our UST system with the knowledge given and decided immediately that we have several areas that need improvement.

This kind of feedback is music to the ears for any trainer who is in the business for reasons beyond just making a living—we didn’t just certify an operator, we altered behavior. And altering behavior, especially without the threat of fines and penalties, is what I believe training should be about. One of the challenges of teaching release prevention is that you never know exactly how many expensive cleanups you have prevented, fiery spill incidents you have mitigated, or home water wells you have protected from contamination. You just have to believe in what you are doing.

The Bottom Line

So whether you are a trainer, tank owner/operator, inspector, manufacturer, or sales rep, it’s important to understand that training isn’t just about complying with a new rule or passing a competency test. Training is teaching people information in ways that they can understand and motivating them to modify their behavior based on that information. In the UST operator arena, this means helping people run their businesses better by reducing risks they hardly knew existed. Student engagement in a class should result in heightened awareness of risks and responsibilities and be followed by thoughtful analysis of the UST operations for which the student is responsible. This analysis should produce ideas on how to upgrade equipment and make operations more effective. Those ideas can ultimately reduce the likelihood of a leaking pipe, a major spill, or a contaminated drinking water well. I once heard that, “Bad training costs and good training pays.” As operator-training programs mature, we’ll see if that’s the case in our US industry.

Ben Thomas is with USTTraining, a company that provides operators and inspectors with motivational training seminars throughout the United States.
He can be reached at He is a frequent contributor to LUSTLine. Note: A version of this article originally appeared in the Steel Tank Institute’s newsletter Tank Talk.

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