Hazardous Materials Removal Workers

Significant Points

  • Formal education beyond high school is not required, but good mathematics skills are important to job performance.
  • Employment is expected to grow about as fast as average; job openings will be available in all disciplines, especially lead abatement and decontamination jobs.

Nature of the Work [About this section]  Index

Increased public awareness and Federal and State regulations require the removal of hazardous materials from buildings, facilities and the environment to avoid further contamination of natural resources and to promote public health and safety. Hazardous materials removal workers identify, remove, package, transport and dispose of various hazardous materials, including asbestos, lead, and radioactive and nuclear materials. The removal of hazardous materials, or "hazmats," from public places and the environment is also called abatement, remediation and decontamination.

Hazardous materials removal workers use a variety of tools and equipment, depending on the work at hand. Equipment ranges from brooms to personal protective suits that are totally contained to avoid exposure. Depending on the threat of contamination, equipment required can include disposable or reusable coveralls, gloves, hard hats, shoe covers, safety glasses or goggles, chemical resistant clothing, face shields and hearing protection. Most workers are also required to wear respirators while working to protect them from airborne particles. These respirators range from simple versions that cover only the mouth and nose to self-contained suits with their own oxygen supply.

Asbestos is a material used in the past for fireproofing roofing, flooring and heat insulation and a variety of other uses. While materials containing asbestos are rarely used in buildings anymore, there are still structures containing the material. Fairly harmless when imbedded in materials, asbestos, when airborne, can cause several lung diseases, including lung cancer and asbestosis.

Lead was a common building component found in paint and plumbing fixtures and pipes until the late 1970’s. Because lead is easily absorbed into the bloodstream, it can travel to vital organs and build up there. The health risks associated with lead poisoning include fatigue, loss of appetite, miscarriage, and learning disabilities and decreased IQ in children. Due to these risks, it has become necessary to remove lead-based products and asbestos from buildings and structures.

Asbestos abatement and lead abatement workers remove these and other materials from buildings scheduled to be renovated or demolished. They use a variety of hand and power tools, such as vacuums and scrapers, to remove asbestos and lead from surfaces. The vacuums used by asbestos abatement workers have special, highly efficient filters designed to trap the asbestos, which is later disposed of or stored. During the abatement, special monitors for asbestos and lead content sample the air to protect the workers; lead abatement workers also wear a personal air monitor that indicates how much lead the worker has been exposed to. Workers also use monitoring devices to identify the asbestos, lead and other materials that need to be removed from the surfaces of walls and structures.

A typical residential lead abatement project involves using a chemical to strip the lead-based paint from the walls of the home. Lead abatement workers apply the compound with a putty knife and allow it to dry. Then they scrape the hazardous material into an impregnable container for transport and storage. They also use sandblasters and high-pressure water sprayers to remove lead from large structures.

Radioactive materials are classified as either high- or low-level wastes. High-level wastes primarily are nuclear reactor fuels used to produce electricity. Low-level wastes include any radioactively contaminated protective clothing, tools, filters, medical equipment, and other items. Decontamination technicians perform duties similar to janitors and cleaners. They use brooms, mops and other tools to clean exposed areas and remove exposed items for decontamination or disposal. With experience these workers can advance to radiation protection technician jobs and use radiation survey meters to locate and evaluate materials, operate high pressure cleaning equipment for decontamination, and package radioactive materials for transportation or disposal.

Decommissioning and decontamination (D&D) workers remove and treat radioactive materials generated by nuclear facilities and power plants. They use a variety of hand-tools to break down contaminated items such as "gloveboxes," which are used to process radioactive materials. At decommissioning sites the workers clean and decontaminate the facility, as well as remove any radioactive or contaminated materials.

Treatment, storage and disposal (TSD) workers transport and prepare materials for treatment or disposal. To insure proper treatment of materials, laws require workers in this field be able to verify shipping manifests. At incinerator facilities, these workers transport materials from the customer or service center to the incinerator. At landfills, they follow a strict procedure for the processing and storage of hazardous materials. They organize and track the location of items in the fill and may help change the state of a material from liquid to solid in preparation for its storage. These workers typically operate heavy machinery such as forklifts, earth moving machinery and large trucks and rigs.

Hazardous materials removal workers, whether working in asbestos and lead abatement or in radioactive decontamination, must stand, stoop and kneel for long periods of time. Workers may also be required to construct scaffolding or erect containment areas prior to the abatement or decontamination. Government regulation, in most cases, dictates that hazardous materials removal workers are closely supervised on the work site. The standard is usually one supervisor to every 10 workers. The work is very structured, planned out sometimes years in advance and team oriented. There is a great deal of cooperation among supervisors and coworkers. Due to the nature of the materials being removed, work areas are restricted to licensed hazardous materials removal workers, minimizing exposure to the public.

Working Conditions [About this section]  Index

Hazardous materials removal workers face different working conditions depending on their area of expertise. Although many work a standard 40-hour week, overtime and shift work is not uncommon, especially in asbestos and lead abatement. Asbestos and lead abatement workers tend to work primarily in buildings and other structures, such as office buildings and schools. Because they are under pressure to complete their work and must work around the schedules of others, completing projects often requires night and weekend work.

Treatment, storage and disposal workers are employed primarily at facilities such as landfills, incinerators, boilers and industrial furnaces. These facilities are often located in remote areas due to the kinds of work being done. As a result, workers employed by treatment, storage or disposal facilities may commute long distances to work.

Decommissioning and decontamination workers, decontamination technicians and radiation protection technicians work at nuclear facilities and electrical power plants. These sites, like treatment, storage and disposal facilities, also are often far from urban areas. They may need to use sharp tools to dismantle contaminated objects, often in cramped conditions. A hazardous materials removal worker must have great self-control and a level head to cope with the daily stress associated with working with hazardous materials.

Hazardous materials removal employees work in a highly structured environment to minimize danger. Each phase of an operation is planned out in advance and workers are trained to deal with safety breaches and hazardous situations. Crew and supervisors take every precaution to insure the work site is safe. Some hazardous materials removal workers must wear fully enclosed personal protective suits for several hours at a time, which may be hot and uncomfortable and cause some individuals to experience claustrophobia.

Hazardous materials removal workers may be required to travel outside their normal working area in order to respond to emergency situations. These emergency cleanups sometimes take several days or weeks to complete and workers usually are away from home for the duration of the project.

Employment [About this section]  Index

Hazardous materials removal workers held about 38,000 jobs in 1998. About two-thirds were employed by special trade contractors, primarily in asbestos and lead abatement. The next largest industry of employment was sanitary services, including treatment, storage and disposal facilities. A small number worked in electric services at nuclear and electric plants as decommissioning and decontamination workers and radiation safety and decontamination technicians.

Training, Other Qualifications, & Advancement [About this section]  Index

Formal education beyond a high school diploma is not required to become a hazardous materials removal worker. However, workers must be able to perform basic mathematical conversions and calculations, manipulating readings for consideration during the abatement. To perform the job duties, workers should also have good physical strength and manual dexterity.

Federal regulations require a license to work as a hazardous materials removal worker. Most employers provide technical training on the job, but a formal 32- to 40-hour training program must be completed to be licensed to work as an asbestos and lead abatement worker or a treatment, storage, and disposal worker. The program covers health hazards, personal protective equipment and clothing, site safety, hazard recognition and identification, and decontamination. In some cases, workers will discover one hazardous material while abating another. If the workers are not licensed to work with the newly discovered material they cannot continue to work. Many experienced workers opt to take courses in additional disciplines to counteract this problem. Some employers prefer to hire workers licensed in multiple disciplines.

For decommissioning and decontamination workers employed at nuclear facilities, training is more extensive. In addition to the standard 40-hour training course in asbestos, lead, and hazardous waste, workers must take courses on regulations governing nuclear materials and radiation safety. These courses add up to approximately three months of training, though most are not taken consecutively. Many agencies, organizations and companies throughout the country provide training programs that are approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and other regulatory bodies. Workers in all fields are required to take refresher courses every year to maintain their license.

Job Outlook [About this section]  Index

Overall employment in this occupation is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2008. Employment of the largest group of workers, asbestos and lead abatement workers, is expected to grow as fast as other occupations in special trade contractors, but opportunities will be best in lead abatement. Unlike other occupations in construction trades, employment for these workers is little affected by slowdowns in the economy.

Employment of decontamination technicians, radiation safety technicians, and decommissioning and decontamination workers is expected to grow due to increased pressure for safer and cleaner nuclear and electric generator facilities. In addition, the number of closed facilities that need decommissioning may continue to grow due to federal legislation. These workers are less affected by fluctuations in the economy because the facilities they work in must operate regardless of the state of the economy.

Earnings [About this section]  Index

Median hourly earnings of hazardous materials removal workers were $13.28 in 1998. The middle 50 percent earned between $10.76 and $17.85 per hour. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $9.26 per hour and the highest 10 percent earned more than $22.14 per hour.

According to the limited data available, treatment, storage and disposal workers usually earn slightly more than asbestos and lead abatement workers or decontamination technicians. Decontamination and decommissioning workers and radiation protection technicians, though comprising the smallest group, tend to earn the highest wages.

Related Occupations [About this section]  Index

Asbestos and lead abatement workers share similar skills with other construction trades workers, including bricklayers and stonemasons, concrete masons and terrazzo workers, insulation workers, and sheetmetal workers. Treatment, storage and disposal workers, decommissioning and decontamination workers, and decontamination and radiation safety technicians work closely with plant and system operators such as electric power generating plant operators and water and wastewater treatment plant operators.

Sources of Additional Information [About this section]  Index

For more information on hazardous materials removal workers, including training information, contact:

  • Laborers-AGC Education and Training Fund, 37 Deerfield Rd., P.O. Box 37, Promfret, CT 06259.

An industry employing hazardous materials removal workers that appears in the 2000-01 Career Guide to Industries: Construction
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