Hazardous materials (hazmat) removal workers identify and dispose of asbestos, lead, radioactive waste, and other hazardous materials. They also neutralize and clean up materials that are flammable, corrosive, or toxic.

Duties

Hazmat removal workers typically do the following:

  • Follow safety procedures before, during, and after cleanup
  • Comply with state and federal laws regarding waste disposal
  • Test hazardous materials to determine the proper way to clean up
  • Construct scaffolding or build containment areas before cleaning up
  • Remove, neutralize, or clean up hazardous materials that are found or spilled
  • Clean contaminated equipment for reuse
  • Package, transport, or store hazardous materials
  • Keep records of cleanup activities

Hazmat removal workers clean up materials that are harmful to people and the environment. They usually work in teams and follow strict instructions and guidelines. The specific duties of hazmat removal workers depend on the substances that are targeted and the location of the cleanup. For example, some workers may remove and treat radioactive materials generated by nuclear facilities and power plants. They break down contaminated items such as “glove boxes,” which are used to process radioactive materials, and they clean and decontaminate closed or decommissioned (taken out of service) facilities.

Hazmat removal workers may clean up hazardous materials in response to natural or human-made disasters and accidents, such as those involving trains, trucks, or other vehicles transporting hazardous materials.

Workers dealing with radiation may also measure, record, and report radiation levels; operate high-pressure cleaning equipment for decontamination; and package radioactive materials for removal or storage.

In addition, workers may prepare and transport hazardous materials for treatment, storage, or disposal in accordance with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations. Using equipment such as forklifts, earthmoving machinery, and trucks, workers move materials from contaminated sites to incinerators, landfills, or storage facilities. They also organize and track the locations of items in these facilities.

Asbestos abatement workers and lead abatement workers remove asbestos and lead, respectively, from buildings and structures, particularly those which are being renovated or demolished. Most of this work is in older buildings that were originally built with asbestos insulation and lead-based paints—both of which are now banned.

Asbestos and lead abatement workers apply chemicals to surfaces, such as walls and ceilings, in order to soften asbestos or remove lead-based paint. Once the chemicals are applied, workers cut out asbestos from the surfaces or strip the walls. They package the residue or paint chips and place them in approved bags or containers for proper disposal. Lead abatement workers operate sandblasters, high-pressure water sprayers, and other tools to remove paint. Asbestos abatement workers also use scrapers or vacuums to remove asbestos from buildings.

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Work Environment

Hazardous materials removal workers held about 45,900 jobs in 2018. The largest employers of hazardous materials removal workers were as follows:

Remediation and other waste management services                        64%
Waste treatment and disposal 10
Construction 6
Self-employed workers 1

Working conditions vary with the hazardous material being removed. For example, workers removing lead or asbestos often work in confined spaces or at great heights and bend or stoop to remove the material. Workers responding to emergency and disaster scenarios may work outside in all weather conditions.

Asbestos and lead abatement workers typically work in buildings that are being renovated or torn down, or in confined spaces.

Many other workers are employed at facilities such as landfills, incinerators, and industrial furnaces. Others may work at nuclear facilities and electric power plants.

Injuries and Illnesses

Cleaning or removing hazardous materials is dangerous, and workers must follow specific safety procedures to avoid injuries and illnesses. They usually work in teams and follow instructions from a team leader or site supervisor.

Workers wear coveralls, gloves, shoe covers, and safety glasses or goggles to reduce their exposure to harmful materials. Some must wear fully closed protective suits, which may be hot and uncomfortable, for several hours at a time. Hazmat removal workers are required to wear respirators to protect themselves from airborne particles or noxious gases in extremely toxic cleanups. Lead abatement workers wear personal air monitors that measure the amount of lead exposure.

Work Schedules

Most hazmat removal workers are employed full time. Overtime and shift work are common, especially for workers responding to emergency and disaster scenarios.

Some hazmat removal workers travel to areas affected by a disaster. During a cleanup, workers may be away from home for several days or weeks until the project is completed.

Education and Training

Hazardous materials (hazmat) removal workers receive on-the-job training. They must complete up to 40 hours of training in accordance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards.

There are no formal education requirements beyond a high school diploma.

Education

Hazmat removal workers typically need a high school diploma.

Training

Hazmat removal workers receive training on the job. Training generally includes a combination of classroom instruction and fieldwork. In the classroom, they learn safety procedures and the proper use of personal protective equipment. Onsite, they learn about equipment and chemicals, and are supervised by an experienced worker.

Workers must complete up to 40 hours of training in accordance with OSHA standards. The length of training depends on the type of hazardous material that the workers handle. The training covers health hazards, personal protective equipment and clothing, site safety, recognizing and identifying hazards, and decontamination.

To work with a specific hazardous material, workers must complete training requirements and work requirements set by state or federal agencies on handling that material.

Workers who treat asbestos or lead, the most common contaminants, must complete an employer-sponsored training program that covers technical and safety subjects outlined by OSHA.

Workers at nuclear facilities receive extensive training. In addition to completing the OSHA-required hazardous waste removal training, workers must take courses on nuclear materials and radiation safety as mandated by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. These courses may take up to 3 months to complete, although most are not taken consecutively.

Organizations and companies provide training programs that are approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

In addition to mandating the completion of training required by OSHA, some states mandate permits or licenses, particularly for asbestos and lead removal. Workers who transport hazardous materials may need a state or federal permit.

License requirements vary by state, but candidates typically must meet the following criteria:

  • Be at least 18 years old
  • Complete training mandated by a state or federal agency
  • Pass a written exam

To maintain licensure, workers must take continuing education courses each year. For more information, check with the state’s licensing agency.

Work Experience in a Related Occupation

Although work experience is not required, some employers prefer candidates with experience in the construction trades—workers such as construction laborers and helpers.

Personality and Interests

Hazardous materials (hazmat) removal workers typically have an interest in the Building and Organizing interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Building interest area indicates a focus on working with tools and machines, and making or fixing practical things. The Organizing interest area indicates a focus on working with information and processes to keep things arranged in orderly systems.

If you are not sure whether you have a Building or Organizing interest which might fit with a career as a hazardous materials (hazmat) removal worker, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Hazardous materials (hazmat) removal workers should also possess the following specific qualities:

Decision-making skills. Hazmat removal workers identify materials in a spill or leak and choose the proper method for cleaning up. For example, when a chemical tanker overturns, workers must decide if evacuation is needed, and clean up the site.

Detail oriented. Hazmat removal workers must follow safety procedures and keep records of their work. For example, workers must track the amount and type of waste disposed, equipment or chemicals used, and number of containers stored.

Math skills. Workers must be able to perform basic mathematical conversions and calculations when mixing solutions that neutralize contaminants.

Mechanical skills. Depending on the size and type of the cleanup, hazmat removal workers may use sandblasters, power washers, or earthmovers to clean contaminated sites.

Physical stamina. Hazmat cleanup work can be strenuous. For example, workers may have to stand and scrub equipment or surfaces for hours at a time to remove toxic materials.

Pay

The median annual wage for hazardous materials removal workers was $43,900 in May 2019. 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 percent earned less than $29,100, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $74,650.

In May 2019, the median annual wages for hazardous materials removal workers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Construction $46,190
Waste treatment and disposal 44,750
Remediation and other waste management services                                43,310

Most hazmat removal workers are employed full time. Overtime and shift work are common, especially for emergency and disaster response workers.

Some hazmat removal workers travel to areas affected by a disaster. During a cleanup, workers may be away from home for several days or weeks until the project is completed.

Job Outlook

Employment of hazardous materials (hazmat) removal workers is projected to grow 11 percent from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations.

Employment growth will be driven by the need to safely remove and clean up hazardous materials at sites recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In addition, with nuclear plants continuing to be decommissioned in the next decade, hazmat removal workers will be needed to decontaminate equipment, store waste, and clean up these facilities for safe closure.

Job Prospects

Overall job opportunities for hazmat removal workers should be good because of the need to replace workers who leave the occupation each year. Hazmat removal workers may face competition from those construction laborers and insulation workers who are trained to do hazmat removal or cleanups.

For More Information

For more information about hazardous materials removal workers in the construction industry, including information on training, visit

Laborers’ International Union of North America

For more information about working in the nuclear industry, visit

Nuclear Energy Institute

For information about training and regulations mandated by federal agencies, visit

Occupational Safety & Health Administration

U.S. Department of Energy

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency        

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

 

FAQ

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The career information above is taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. This excellent resource for occupational data is published by the U.S. Department of Labor every two years. Truity periodically updates our site with information from the BLS database.

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