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What Hazardous Materials Removal Workers Do About this section

Hazardous materials removal workers
Hazmat removal workers remove, neutralize, or clean up hazardous materials.

Hazardous materials (hazmat) removal workers identify and dispose of harmful substances, such as asbestos, lead, mold, and radioactive waste. 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 tools and 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 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 facilities that are closed or decommissioned (taken out of service).

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 following 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 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 remove 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. Asbestos abatement workers use scrapers or vacuums to remove asbestos from buildings. Lead abatement workers operate sandblasters, high-pressure water sprayers, and other tools to remove paint.

Work Environment About this section

Hazardous materials removal workers
Hazmat removal workers wear protective clothing to reduce exposure to toxic materials.

Hazardous materials removal workers held about 45,300 jobs in 2019. The largest employers of hazardous materials removal workers were as follows:

Remediation and other waste management services 60%
Waste treatment and disposal 11
Construction 7

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

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

Hazmat removal work may be physically demanding and strenuous.

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 for several hours at a time, which may be hot and uncomfortable. For extremely toxic cleanups, hazmat removal workers also are required to wear respirators to protect themselves from airborne particles or noxious gases. 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 is common for some workers, especially for those who respond 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.

How to Become a Hazardous Materials Removal Worker About this section

Hazardous materials removal workers
Hazmat removal workers learn on the job.

Hazardous materials (hazmat) removal workers typically need a high school diploma and are trained on the job. They must complete training that follows federal, state, and local standards.

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 technical instruction and fieldwork. For technical training, 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.

The length of training and the information covered in training varies, depending on regulatory requirements and type of hazardous material that a worker is being trained to remove or reduce.

Employers may require workers to have completed OSHA Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Standard (HAZWOPER) training. The training covers health hazards, personal protective equipment, site safety, recognizing and identifying hazards, and decontamination. Refresher training may be required periodically.

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 HAZWOPER training, workers must take courses on nuclear materials and radiation safety as mandated by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

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

Apprenticeships, such as Construction Craft Laborer through the Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA), provide training, hands-on instruction, and certification tests for hazmat workers.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Some states require workers to have permits or licenses for each type of hazardous waste they remove, particularly asbestos and lead. 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.

Some certifications, such as for HAZWOPER training, may be required. Others, such as Department of Transportation (DOT) hazmat transportation certification, are optional but may lead to more employment opportunities.

Work Experience in a Related Occupation

Hazmat materials removal workers typically do not need related experience to enter the occupation. However, some employers prefer candidates who have experience in the construction trades—workers such as construction laborers and helpers—or in military careers.

Advancement

Hazmat removal workers may advance to become a supervisor after gaining experience and completing additional training, such as the OSHA HAZWOPER supervisor training. Workers also may advance to different positions within their industry, such as a radiation safety technician later becoming a supervisor in the nuclear power industry. After gaining experience, workers also may choose to start their own hazmat removal business.

Important Qualities

Decision-making skills. Hazmat removal workers identify materials in a spill or leak and choose the proper method for safe cleanup.

Detail oriented. Hazmat removal workers must follow safety procedures, understand laws and regulations, and keep records of their work.

Mechanical skills. Hazmat removal workers may operate heavy equipment to clean up contaminated sites and set up machinery needed for remediation.

Physical stamina. Workers may have to stand and scrub equipment or surfaces for hours at a time to remove toxic materials.

Physical strength. Some hazmat removal workers lift and move heavy pieces of materials they are removing from a site.

Pay About this section

Hazardous Materials Removal Workers

Median annual wages, May 2020

Construction and extraction occupations

$48,610

Hazardous materials removal workers

$45,270

Total, all occupations

$41,950

 

The median annual wage for hazardous materials removal workers was $45,270 in May 2020. 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 $30,590, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $76,570.

In May 2020, the median annual wages for hazardous materials removal workers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Construction $45,830
Waste treatment and disposal 45,370
Remediation and other waste management services 44,900

Apprentices are paid less than fully trained hazmat removal workers. Apprentices receive pay increases as they advance through the apprenticeship program. 

Most hazmat removal workers are employed full time. Overtime is common for some workers, especially for those who respond to emergency and disaster situations.

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 About this section

Hazardous Materials Removal Workers

Percent change in employment, projected 2019-29

Hazardous materials removal workers

8%

Construction and extraction occupations

4%

Total, all occupations

4%

 

Employment of hazardous materials (hazmat) removal workers is projected to grow 8 percent from 2019 to 2029, 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

About 5,600 openings for hazmat removal workers are projected each year, on average, over the decade.

Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force.

Because hazmat removal is often project based, downtime may occur depending on project type. For example, nuclear abatement workers may have downtime after completing a project and before they are assigned to a new nuclear abatement project.

Employment projections data for hazardous materials removal workers, 2019-29
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2019 Projected Employment, 2029 Change, 2019-29 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Hazardous materials removal workers

47-4041 45,300 49,000 8 3,700 Get data

Contacts for More Information About this section

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

Mine Safety and Health Administration

Occupational Safety & Health Administration

U.S. Department of Energy

U.S. Department of Transportation

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

O*NET

Hazardous Materials Removal Workers

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