What Do Hazardous Materials Removal Workers Do?
When you hear "HazMat cleanup," you probably picture the opening scene of a movie: officials in full biohazard suits swarming a scene with screaming Geiger counters to instigate a government coverup. Change "coverup" to "cleanup," dial back the drama, and you're not completely wrong. But hazardous materials removal covers a broader range of jobs than you might imagine. And while the work isn't usually dramatic, it's critical to the safety of millions of Americans.
What is HazMat Cleanup?
HazMat removal workers have an important job: clean up and safely dispose of materials that are harmful to human health and the environment. That can include:
- Radioactive and nuclear waste
- Asbestos, lead, or arsenic
- Any other carcinogens, irritants, or toxic agents
- Combustible, explosive, flammable, corrosive, or otherwise reactive chemicals
By its nature, HazMat removal work can be dangerous to both workers and the general public, which is why a big part of the job is following safety guidelines created by U.S. and state governments. HazMat removal is a strictly regulated profession.
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What Do Hazardous Materials Removal Workers Do?
Specific tasks and precautions in HazMat removal depend on what you're cleaning up and where you're doing it. Is the substance explosive or is it toxic? Are you in a disaster area or a controlled environment? Is the hazardous material unidentified or is it known? Generally speaking, though, duties include:
- Following safety procedures and complying with state and federal laws
- Testing hazardous materials to determine the best way to clean them up
- Creating scaffolding and containment areas to enable safe removal
- Removing, neutralizing, or otherwise cleaning up hazardous materials
- Cleaning contaminated equipment for reuse
- Packaging, transporting, storing, or destroying hazardous materials and related waste
- Keeping records of cleanup activities
HazMat cleanup requires teamwork, careful planning, strict safety protocols, and, often, cumbersome protective equipment in uncomfortable environments. Workers typically wear coveralls, goggles or safety glasses, gloves, and shoe covers, but some may need fully enclosed protective suits or respirators for hours at a time. In most cases, it's full-time employment, often involving overtime and shift work.
What Are the Different Types of HazMat Cleanup?
There are many different types of hazardous materials decontamination work. Let's talk about the most common specialties.
Asbestos Abatement Workers
Asbestos abatement workers remove asbestos from older buildings—particularly asbestos insulation in buildings that are being renovated or demolished. This often requires night and weekend work in old office buildings, schools, apartments, historic homes, and other structures. First, they apply chemicals to soften it up the asbestos, then they cut, scrape, or vacuum it away. Special bags or containers are required for safe disposal.
Lead Abatement Workers
Lead abatement workers remove lead-based paint from older buildings under similar conditions to asbestos abatement. They use chemicals, sandblasters, high-pressure water sprayers, and other techniques to strip the paint, then they dispose of the paint chips and residue in special containers. Lead abatement workers need personal air monitors to measure their lead exposure levels as they work.
Environmental Remediation / Emergency and Disaster Response Workers
HazMat removal workers are a critical part of environmental remediation—in other words, the planned cleanup of industrial waste. They do the hard, hands-on work of clearing pollutants and contaminants from Superfund sites, Brownfield sites, and other affected areas. Similar work is necessary in emergency and disaster response when hazardous materials are released. This includes accidents involving trains or trucks full of hazardous materials, or natural disasters that cause HazMat contamination (think Fukushima).
Treatment, Storage, and Disposal (TSD) Technicians
Treatment, Storage, and Disposal (TSD) technicians ensure that hazardous materials are stored or disposed of safely after they're no longer useful. Some can be safely destroyed. Others can be treated with other substances to render them harmless. Some substances can only be stored away securely to avoid contamination. TSD technicians may work at landfills, recycling plants, incinerators, industrial furnaces, or special storage facilities. They often operate heavy machinery to move hazardous materials. Often, regulations require careful record-keeping.
Radioactive Materials Workers
There are a cluster of positions that primarily involve radioactive materials and/or nuclear power plants. These usually demand a higher degree of education and training than other HazMat removal work. Radiation Protection Technicians use protocols and technology to reduce the risk of radiation leaks and/or mitigate their effects. Technicians monitor, record, and report radiation levels. They're usually not directly responsible for cleanup, but offer advice on procedure, risks, and potential solutions. Most radiation protection technicians are employed by private businesses or organizations to assist in environmental waste management or remediation. Decommissioning and Decontamination (D&D) Workers remove and treat radioactive materials generated by nuclear facilities and power plants. Demand for this work is highest during refueling, with the potential for periods of unemployment. Recently demand has been higher due to the need to decommission a large number of older nuclear plants.
Mold Remediation Workers
Mold remediation is a very small part of hazardous waste removal. Arguably, it doesn't even fit the definition, but toxic (or highly allergenic) mold requires similar safety precautions due to health concerns. Mold remediation workers use wet-vacs, dehumidifiers, and fans to dry affected areas. They may use chemicals to neutralize the harmful effects of mold or remove the infested drywall, insulation, or carpet entirely.
How Much Do HazMat Technicians Make? What are the Job Prospects?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), hazardous materials removal workers' average income was $43,030 in 2018. That's $22.62/hour. The top 10% of HazMat removal workers make over $75k a year. Most workers are employed by remediation and other waste management services (64%). The rest are largely employed in waste treatment and disposal (10%) as well as construction (6%). Waste treatment and construction tend to pay a little better than remediation. The BLS expects jobs in HazMat removal to grow "much faster than average" in the coming decade—11% between 2018 and 2028. Growth will be driven by the need to safely clean up hazardous waste sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as the expected closing of many nuclear power plants. Job prospects and pay vary by location—the BLS has a very good geographical breakdown that's worth checking out. Top paying states include Alaska, Washington, New York, Tennessee, and Hawaii.
How Do You Become a HazMat Technician?
The answer is going to depend on the job and the hazardous substance, as well as state and local laws.
Education and Experience
Starting a career in hazardous materials removal usually doesn't require special education or experience. A high school diploma or GED is fine. Like any job, relevant work experience will give you a leg up. For example, construction experience will give you skills for the removal or abatement of asbestos, lead, and mold. Nuclear facilities have stricter prerequisites. They generally prefer to hire people with a related associate degree and/or 2+ years of related work experience (particularly experience gained in the U.S. Navy). Candidates also need to be a U.S. citizen and to pass a background investigation and substance abuse screening.
Permits, Licenses, and More
Check your federal, state, and local laws on the type of removal work you're interested in. States often require a license or certification to perform asbestos, lead, or mold removal work. A permit may be needed for each individual job site. Transporting hazardous materials may also require a federal or state-level permit, license or registration.
Training: HAZWOPER, DOT, and Beyond
You can expect most HazMat removal employers to provide comprehensive on-the-job training through a combination of "classroom" and fieldwork. Some employers handle the book-learning in house while others will recommend an authorized third party. You'll almost certainly need HAZWOPER (Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response) training. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires HAZWOPER training for any worker who cleans up, treats, stores, or disposes of hazardous waste. You'll learn how and why to take safety precautions that reduce your risk of exposure to hazardous materials. Initial HAZWOPER training involves either 24-Hour HAZWOPER or 40-Hour HAZWOPER training, depending on your exposure risk, followed by 1-3 days of supervised fieldwork. Once a year, you'll have to take an 8-hour refresher course. If your job involves shipping, packaging, transporting, or receiving hazardous materials, you'll probably also need Department of Transportation (DOT) HazMat training.
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