Career and Job Highlights
As more people know about state and federal guidelines and the dangers of hazardous waste, there is increasing demand for hazardous waste removal workers. They safely dispose of potentially harmful waste from factories, building sites, lakes, rivers, forested areas, and residential areas. This increases safety and health for the general public and helps preserve environments. Hazardous material might consist of lead, radioactive materials, oil, asbestos, and many other materials. Workers first locate and identify the hazardous materials, then safely package them and remove them. This work is variously labeled remediation, decontamination, or abatement.
Workers use a number of tools in this occupation. They might use regular cleaning supplies, like brooms and mops, to “hazmat suits” which completely isolate the body. The level of equipment workers use varies depending on the level of danger and the type of material. They might use safety goggles, heavy gloves, hardhats, boots, faceplates, earplugs, or clothing that is resistant to chemicals and flames. Oftentimes workers need to wear breathing apparatuses to that shield them from material in the air. These might be simple masks that go over the nose and mouth or suits that cover the entire body and have their own respirators.
Asbestos used to be used as insulation and as a fire dampener in houses and buildings. Recently, however, asbestos has been shown to be very harmful when inhaled and can lead to serious health problems like cancer in the lungs or asbestosis. Now few builders use asbestos, however it used to be common and so many buildings still have asbestos in them. Like asbestos, lead was used in paints and in fixtures like pipes and sinks before it was discovered to be harmful. When lead is inhaled or consumed it can be assimilated into the blood which can lead to diseases and health problems. Children are especially at risk. These harmful substances need to be removed from buildings that contain them.
Asbestos or lead abatement workers make buildings safe from asbestos and lead. Their services are most often needed when an older structure is going to be updated or torn down. They use many tools like gauging equipment to locate the harmful material and tell how much there is, high-powered vacuums, blades, or brooms to safely eliminate harmful materials from surfaces. A common job for a lead removal worker is to remove lead-based paint. They first apply a special chemical compound to the surface with a long flat tool, then they let it dry, and finally they can scour off all of the paint. They put the removed paint into a sealed container that they can then dispose of safely. On large jobs they might use larger tools like high-powered water hoses or sandblasters. Asbestos abatement workers have special vacuums that are equipped with heavy-duty filters that filter the asbestos out of the air so it can be safely contained. During the removal process, workers use equipment to check the amount of the harmful substance in the air to make sure it’s at a safe level. Lead removal workers might also have personal gauging equipment to show how much lead they come into contact with.
Moving harmful substances is always dangerous, though now it is safer than ever before. Emergency and disaster response workers are the first on the scene when accidents do occur, for instance when a train or truck that is transporting hazardous materials crashes. Emergency response workers are also called to contain or clean up problems caused by chemical or biological warfare.
There are two types of classifications for radioactive substances. High-level materials are usually nuclear reactor fuels that are used in energy production. Low-level materials are anything that has been exposed to radioactive substances. They might be clothing, repair tools, machinery, or anything else that comes in contact with anything radioactive. Decontamination technicians package exposed things to be safely removed, and then clean up contaminated areas using mops, sponges, brooms, etc. Radiation-protection technicians are highly skilled decontamination technicians who use monitoring equipment to find and identify radioactive substances, use advanced cleaning equipment, and safely enclose radioactive substances so they can either be decontaminated or destroyed.
Decommissioning and decontamination workers work at nuclear power plants and other places that use radioactive materials. They use many tools to treat and process radioactive substances. They separate contaminated items like maintenance tools into their component parts which can then be safely handled. They are often called upon to clean up an entire area and dispose of all exposed items.
Once hazardous items have been identified, a major part of the cleanup is actually moving them. Treatment, storage, and disposal workers both move the substances and get them ready to be processed or destroyed. Disposal workers fill out and check shipping manifests of their cargo and transport it to the proper location. Some materials go to incinerators. Others go to landfills where there are very complicated guidelines for depositing hazardous wastes. They keep track of what materials are in the landfill and their locations. They also prepare the materials to be deposited. For instance, they might turn a liquid into a solid. This work often required heavy equipment like derricks, cranes, bulldozers, dump trucks, and semi trucks.
Mold is another substance that hazardous materials workers need to deal with. Though almost all building have some type of mold, some mold is harmful and can cause allergies and respiratory diseases. Mold tends to thrive in wet areas like ventilation ducts, inside walls, laundry rooms, and basements. Some types of mold can lead to a major infestation that is very difficult to eradicate. Sometimes construction workers deal with mold, but often the job is too big and requires special safety equipment and tools to make the area safe.
Hazardous materials removal workers may also need to perform other tasks like building scaffolds or creating secure perimeters. Most local governments state that any worker who deals with dangerous substances need to adhere closely to regulations. These regulations usually state that there has to one supervisor for every ten workers. This work is extremely well organized and well planned. Sometimes jobs are planned months or years in advance. Also, this work requires that people work as a team and work closely with other workers and with supervisors. Since it deals with such dangerous substances, sites are usually quarantined and only officially sanctioned people can get in.
To keep dangers to a minimum, hazardous materials workers work in an extremely ordered atmosphere. Every step is painstakingly planned and workers need to be able to deal with contingencies. Safety procedures are of utmost importance. Sometimes full-body suits are needed, which can be uncomfortable and confining. Also, all workers in this area need to be physically able to stand, kneel, and bend over for extended periods of time.
Working environments vary depending on where hazardous material workers are employed. Most work a normal forty-hour week; however it is usual for workers to work overtime or during odd hours. This is especially true for those who work in asbestos or lead removal, which usually takes place in schools, stores, or offices where work needs to be done after closing time. Many workers have deadlines to meet which means working long hours. This can wear workers out. Treatment, storage, and disposal workers usually work at waste disposal sites like garbage dumps, incinerators, boilers, or heavy furnaces. These sites are often in isolated locations and so workers may have long commutes.
Many hazardous materials removal workers are employed by nuclear power plants. Decontamination workers, decontamination technicians, and radiation protection technicians all work at nuclear facilities like that. These are usually in remote locations as well. Workers often need to work in small, confining spaces and need to use dangerous equipment. Workers in this area need to be clear-thinking and composed to handle the pressure of working with dangerous materials.
Often cleanup sites are in distant locations and workers need to travel to respond to emergencies or disasters. They may need to remain at the site until the cleanup is complete, which could take a long time.
Career Training and Job Qualifications
This profession doesn’t require any formal schooling. Federal law states that workers have to be licensed to work with hazardous materials, except mold which isn’t regulated as of yet. Usually workers gain practical experience on the job. However, in order to be a lead or asbestos abatement worker or a treatment, storage, and disposal worker, an individual needs to complete a formal training program that usually takes 32-40 hours. This program provides thorough education on safety guidelines, health issues, using personal safety equipment like suits, types of threats, identifying threats, and treatment. Sometimes a worker finds an unexpected harmful substance while removing another. If they are not certified to handle the recently found substance they can’t remove it, so many people get certified with many different materials. Also, being certified in many areas improves job opportunities.
More training is required for decontamination and decommissioning workers who work at nuclear power plants. They need to complete the normal 40-hour program that other workers need to take, and also classes that teach about safety in handling radioactive materials and laws and regulations concerning nuclear activity. This usually takes around three months if taken all at once, but they are usually spread out as night classes. Many organizations administer these training programs. It is important to find a program that is sanctioned by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Department of Energy, or another well-recognized organization. All workers have to take yearly continuing education courses to remain licensed.
There are a few other requirements to work in this industry. Being able to quickly perform arithmetic, being physically fit, and being coordinated are all necessary. Also, since the work involves hazardous materials workers need to be dependable and meticulous. Knowledge of construction materials and techniques is also beneficial.
Job and Employment Opportunities
Prospects for those entering the industry are projected to be excellent. Workers are less likely to remain in this industry for the course of their career as people look for jobs with more comfortable working conditions. This means that there are many new openings. Also, many people look for jobs that are safer and less physically demanding, so there it often little competition for positions. Individuals with experience will have very good prospects. However, more governmental agencies are hiring private companies for removal work and so workers will have fewer opportunities to work for the government.
Historical Earnings Information
Most hazardous materials workers are paid hourly. The majority of workers made between $12.30/hour and $22.20/hour in 2002 with a median of $15.60/hour. The lowest tenth on the pay scale made under $10.30/hour and the highest made over $26.60/hour.
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