Like most people in the United States, March 2020 was an overwhelming month for Matthew Hartin. Even with 14 years of experience at Totall Metal Recycling (Granite City, Ill.) under his belt, the spread of COVID-19 was not something he could easily prepare the company for. But March was also Hartin’s first month as the Totall Metal Recycling’s safety manager. Moving from the warehouse to the corporate office, Hartin assumed new responsibilities at a chaotic time. “It’s been a real learning experience and dealing with COVID…it’s been a trial by fire,” says Hartin.

Early in the pandemic, ISRI transitioned from in-person to virtual safety training sessions to help better serve recyclers like Hartin. These virtual trainings provided a space for members to refine their skills and learn new information to better serve their workplaces and communities.

Virtual training sessions are more inclusive. No longer limited by location, time zones, or travel, interested members can attend sessions when, where, and how they want. This flexibility is essential for international members like Aaron Broadbent, the branch manager of Metalcorp in New Zealand. “I was able to discuss topics with people from other countries,” he recalls. “Being way down here in the bottom of the Pacific, it’s not viable time-wise, economically, or financially to travel to these seminars or training modules.”

Even U.S. members enjoy the flexibility and freedom to attend sessions without worrying how they’ll interfere with professional or personal schedules. “When [trainings] are on-site or you have to go somewhere, it takes a lot of your day,” says Lisa Weaving, quality, environment, health, and safety (QEHS) director for ER2 (Mesa, Ariz.), an electronics recycling company. But participating in virtual training is easy. You can just “jump on and take your notes and get your information,” she says.

A virtual platform may seem like a difficult medium to form authentic, meaningful connections. Sharing physical space and going through the same experiences with others allows for effortless connections and conversations. Keeping six feet apart and looking at your peers through a computer screen can feel isolating. But attendees at ISRI’s virtual safety trainings found ways to work through those issues. The distance created by the virtual setup motivated attendees to reach out and share stories, says Rose Sinclair, EHS manager at Northstar Pulp & Paper Co (Springfield, Mass.). “I think we are being afforded an opportunity we might have otherwise missed,” she says. “We have to connect—we have to be present to each other collectively.”

Sinclair recalls talking about COVID-19’s impact during a course ISRI offered called “Hazard Recognition around Loading Dock Areas,” which she attended in August. In the course, offered multiple times from July through December, recyclers including Sinclair and Hartin learned about finding, recognizing, and fixing hazards in the loading dock and shipping and receiving areas of a business. “We have drivers, strangers, and interstate commerce happening all the time,” she says. “[We discussed] what’s happening with people at our scale house and how are we protecting them. People were getting real instead of just talking theory … People were engaging on what actually happens in real time.”

Attendees like Broadbent were actively listening. “Just to hear other people’s perspectives on what they do and how they do it, it broadens your mind a little,” he says. For Hartin, hearing these stories and experiences was useful as he began acclimating to his new role. “Being new and getting everyone’s different perspective … helps you figure out how to tailor your training to your employees,” he says.

For a virtual training to succeed, the moderator running the event needs to be clear, concise, and active. Instructors for the hazard recognition course included Tony Smith, ISRI’s vice president of safety; Commodor Hall, ISRI’s Senior Director of Safety; and Olga Prendes-Garcia, environmental, health, & safety manager at Atlas Metal and Iron (Denver Colo.).

Sinclair knows the work involved in moderating virtual events from her experience as an internet-based trainer. “It’s like being a radio DJ: You don’t see anyone,” she says. With those limitations, it can be difficult for instructors or staff to field questions or address attendees’ needs. Hartin notes how some virtual sessions don’t always provide a space to ask or answer questions.

What’s more, people are still getting acclimated to virtual platforms. Before attending ISRI’s virtual training, Broadbent had little experience using Zoom. ISRI staff helped walk him through setup, so he could join quickly. “I had audio, but they had to step me through, because I had no idea what I was doing,” he says. “After the initial connection and start-up, I didn’t find it challenging at all.” Though initially wary of virtual sessions, Sinclair was impressed with ISRI. “I’m excited when I see that [ISRI is] going to do another offering because it’s so well-done,” she says.

Sinclair admits some material covered in virtual safety trainings can be dry, but ISRI combats this issue by using video. “The ability to see … footage is very impactful. We may not have had that opportunity if we were in person to see something so dramatic,” she says. After each session, ISRI sends attendees the recording and additional information. Weaving found it helpful to have longer access to the documents and videos. “You can actually refresh yourself and review the material again,” she says.

Attendees overwhelmingly thought the speakers at ISRI’s safety training sessions were clear, informative, and open to learning about employees’ personal experiences and expertise. Hartin didn’t think the virtual platform limited the speakers; they ran the training as though conducting an in-person presentation. “It was professional and relaxed. Everyone could chime in and answer questions,” he says.

Heather Soerries, QEHS analyst at Battery Solutions, also attended an ISRI virtual training on hazard recognition. She found the instructor well-informed and receptive to learning about her and her colleagues’ experiences with lithium-ion fires. Soerries and her colleagues shared information about these fires and how Battery Solutions (Wixom, Mich.) proactively fights them, using strategies like training local fire departments. “[The speaker] was really curious because it’s not something a lot of fire departments are familiar with. They haven’t had lithium-specific training, and they have to deal with it differently than a normal fire,” she says. Soerries enjoyed how open the speaker was to learning from her company. “The instructor was willing to work with us and gain more knowledge from us as a facility,” she adds.

Considering the value of virtual training during COVID-19, Hartin reflects on the words of a previous supervisor—any situation can provide a learning opportunity. “No matter what the case is, you can always learn what to do or what not to do, and that’s stuck with me,” says Hartin.

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

Hannah Zuckerman

Hannah Zuckerman

Hannah is a Writer & Editor for ISRI's Scrap News. She's interested in a wide range of topics in the recycling industry and is always eager to learn more. She graduated from Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in History and a minored in Creative Writing. She lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband.