Hazardous materials (hazmat) removal workers identify and dispose of asbestos, radioactive and nuclear waste, arsenic, lead, and other hazardous materials. They also clean up materials that are flammable, corrosive, reactive, or toxic. Hazmat removal workers face different working conditions, depending on their area of expertise. Some must wear fully enclosed protective suits for several hours at a time. Completing projects often requires night and weekend work. Overtime also is common, especially for emergency or disaster response workers.
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Hazardous materials (hazmat) removal workers typically do the following:
Hazmat removal workers clean up materials that are harmful to people and the environment. The work they do depends on the substances they are cleaning. Removing lead and asbestos is different from cleaning up radiation contamination and toxic spills. Differences also can relate to why these workers have been called in to clean a site. For example, cleaning up a fuel spill from a train derailment is more urgent than removing lead paint from a bridge.
There are no formal educational requirements to become a hazardous materials removal worker beyond a high school diploma. They learn on the job and take at least 40 hours of mandatory occupational safety and health training.
Employers are responsible for ensuring that employees complete a formal 40-hour training program, given either in house or in approved training centers. The program covers health hazards, personal protective equipment and clothing, site safety, recognizing and identifying hazards, and decontamination.
Workers who treat asbestos and lead, the most common contaminants, must complete an employer-sponsored training program that meets OSHA standards. Employer-sponsored training is usually given in-house, and the employer is responsible for covering all technical and safety subjects outlined by OSHA.
In some cases, workers may discover one hazardous material while dealing with another. If workers are not licensed to handle the newly discovered material, they cannot continue to work with it.
Many experienced workers opt to take courses in additional types of hazardous material removal to avoid this situation. Training is most extensive for decommissioning and decontamination workers employed at nuclear facilities. In addition to getting a license through the standard 40-hour training course in hazardous waste removal, workers must take courses dealing with regulations about nuclear materials and radiation safety. These courses add up to about three months of training, although most are not taken consecutively.
Most hazardous materials removal workers entering the occupation have a high school diploma. High school math courses are helpful, as are general vocational technical education courses. Additionally, there are several associate’s degree programs related to radiation protection. To work at some nuclear facilities, workers must have two years of related work experience. Experience in the armed services and internships related to associate’s degree programs often count, as does experience working as a janitor at a nuclear facility. For other workers in this occupation, a background in construction is helpful because much of the work is done in buildings.
Hazmat removal workers have different working conditions, depending on their area of expertise. Asbestos and lead abatement workers usually work in office buildings, schools, or historic buildings that are being fixed up. Frequently, completing projects requires night and weekend work to avoid interfering with normal business activity.
Treatment, storage, and disposal workers are usually employed at facilities such as landfills, incinerators, and industrial furnaces. These facilities often are located in remote areas, so workers may have to commute long distances to their jobs.
Decommissioning and decontamination workers, decontamination technicians, and radiation protection technicians work at nuclear facilities and electric power plants. These hazmat removal workers must deal with the stress of handling radioactive materials.
Hazmat removal workers function in a highly structured environment to minimize the danger they face. This concern for safety keeps occupational injuries below the national average. Each phase of an operation is planned in advance, and workers are trained to deal with hazardous situations. Crews and supervisors take every safety measure to ensure that the worksite is safe.
The median annual wage of hazardous materials (hazmat) removal workers was $37,600 in May 2010. (The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less.) The lowest 10% earned less than $24,720, and the top 10% earned more than $63,800.