By TIM ALEXANDER
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — With responsible handling of fertilizers and other farm chemicals thrust into the national spotlight after the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion left at least 14 people dead and scores injured, the announcement of a new agriculture safety training program in Illinois couldn’t have been timelier.
The Head Start Training Program, offered by the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Assoc. (IFCA) in partnership with The Asmark Institute, prepares community college students for work at agricultural retail facilities. The curriculum focuses on anhydrous ammonia safety, driver qualification files, confined space entry, forklift safety, HAZMAT and other areas.
This particular Head Start was developed when ag instructors from Springfield’s Lincoln Land Community College (LLCC) ag program contacted the IFCA after learning of the opening of the Asmark Institute AgriCenter in Bloomington, to inquire about safety training for their students, according to Kevin Runkle, director of regulatory services for the IFCA.
“Professors asked if there were training programs existing for their students who will enter into the ag retail workforce, so we came up with a training curriculum for them,” said Runkle. “Upon graduation they will have a head start on other applicants at ag retail facilities.”
The Owensboro, Ky.-based Asmark Center established its state-of-the-art ag safety training facility in central Illinois in 2012 to offer training courses for ag retail owners, managers and employees. Recently its programs have expanded to include farmers and, now, community college students.
“One thing missing in the agricultural workforce is a variety of young, talented and properly trained individuals prepared to enter the ag retail industry,” said Allen Summers, president of the Asmark Institute.
“If we can offer agriculture students proper safety training, then we have done a great service to the industry by preparing the next generation for a career.”
Reducing accidents is the primary goal of the program, along with educating students in regulatory aspects of ag retail. That’s why the curriculum was crafted by the IFCA to satisfy federal training requirements.
The first Head Start training program class meets April 30. About two dozen LLCC ag students are expected to participate, but Runkle hopes others from more community college ag programs will follow.
“At this point it is a pilot program and if it generates continued interest from other community colleges in Illinois, we will offer more training programs,” stated Runkle. “I think it will be a successful program. The hard part is getting the word out, letting community colleges know that the program exists.”
More than 2,750 community college students were enrolled in various agriculture programs in Illinois during the 2011-12 academic year, according to the Illinois Agricultural Education – so the IFCA and Asmark Institute have a wealth of potential instructors and students to recruit.
“We might get overwhelmed with (community colleges) wanting to come in,” said Runkle, adding it would be a good problem to have if it increases employee and public safety in fertilizer retail outlets, plants and communities.
Runkle can be contacted at 309-827-2774 with questions about the Head Start Training Program.