Hazardous materials, sometimes referred to as “hazmats,” are those that possess at least one of four characteristics: ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity, or toxicity. The most common materials hazardous materials removal workers work with include asbestos, lead-based paint, waste oil, fuel, and transmission fluid. Some might also specialize in working with mold, arsenic, mercury, radioactive materials, and contaminated soil. Hazardous materials removal workers must first identify any hazardous materials and then follow strict federal and state regulations governing how they should be removed. The tools and equipment used vary depending upon the work to be performed.
Asbestos and lead abatement workers are needed when older buildings are being demolished or renovated. They must use protective suits, coveralls, gloves, face shields, safety glasses, respirators, and ear guards to protect against exposure. They seal the construction area to prevent contamination of adjacent areas before scraping old paint and asbestos from surfaces and shoveling the debris into trucks for disposal.
Decommissioning and decontamination (D&D) workers are involved in the safe removal and disposal or cleaning of contaminated equipment and materials from nuclear power plants. They may also help store nuclear fuel until its final disposal. Decontamination activities include removing accumulated surface radioactive material and packaging and transporting hazardous materials to a designated site. After cleaning, all components and structures are dismantled, packaged, and shipped to an authorized disposal site.
Treatment, storage, and disposal (TSD) workers have the responsibility of preparing and transporting materials for disposal. During this process, they must ensure that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) laws and regulations are followed. Depending on the waste material, it may be transported to incinerators, landfills, or storage facilities. At the waste site, they are responsible for preparing the material for disposal and tracking the disposal location. Workers may be required to operate heavy machinery such as forklifts, earth-moving equipment, and large trucks to move the material.
Regardless of the material, all hazmat workers use protective equipment to protect themselves from illness or injury due to contamination. Some workers use protective suits to isolate themselves totally from the materials. Others may use disposable coveralls, gloves, hardhats, shoe covers, safety glasses or goggles, chemical-resistant clothing, and face shields.
Education and training requirements vary by specialty and are governed by standards set by federal, state, and local governments. While no additional schooling past high school is required, most workers must complete at least 40 hours of formal on-the-job training. Some specialties require workers to complete specific training and obtain a license in their area of specialty. For example, those who mitigate asbestos and lead contamination must complete a training program that meets Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards. Emergency and disaster workers as well as treatment, storage, and disposal workers must complete a 40-hour training program that covers topics such as health hazards, personal protective equipment, site safety, and decontamination techniques in order to receive a federal license to work in the field. Training is typically conducted on site, and is usually the responsibility of the employer. In addition to the standard 40-hour course, decommissioning and decontamination workers employed at nuclear facilities must complete additional course work in nuclear material regulations and safety. This training is mandated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Workers in all fields must take refresher courses every year to maintain their licenses.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Outlook expects above average employment growth for hazardous materials removal workers of about 15 percent over the next 10 years. The increase in employment is expected to be driven by an increase in the number of greener electric power plants and increased interest in nuclear power generation. Other new workers will be needed to replace those leaving the workforce each year. Workers will also be needed in the areas of asbestos and lead paint clean up, mold remediation, and superfund projects requiring cleanup of hazardous waste. Regardless of economic conditions, hazardous waste must be safely disposed of to ensure the safety of all who work or live in the affected area. Therefore, hazardous materials removal workers are not affected by the ups and downs of the economy.
Hourly salaries vary depending upon experience. The median hourly wage for hazardous materials removal workers is $17.94. The middle 50 percent earn between $14.09 and $24.09 per hour. The lowest 10 percent earn less than $11.41 per hour and the highest 10 percent earn more than $30.42 per hour.