Working conditions can be hazardous, and the use of protective
clothing often is required.
Formal education beyond high school is not required, but a
training program leading to a Federal license is mandatory.
Excellent job opportunities are expected.
Nature of the Work
Increased public awareness and Federal and State regulations
are resulting in the removal of hazardous materials from buildings,
facilities, and the environment to prevent 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. They also
respond to emergencies where harmful substances are present. The
removal of hazardous materials, or “hazmats,” from public places
and the environment also is called abatement, remediation, and
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 completely isolate workers
from the hazardous material. The equipment required varies with
the threat of contamination and can include disposable or reusable
coveralls, gloves, hardhats, shoe covers, safety glasses or goggles,
chemical-resistant clothing, face shields, and devices to protect
one’s hearing. Most workers also are required to wear respirators
while working, to protect them from airborne particles. The respirators
range from simple versions that cover only the mouth and nose
to self-contained suits with their own air supply.
Asbestos and lead are two of the most common contaminants that
hazardous materials removal workers encounter. In the past, asbestos
was used to fireproof roofing and flooring, for heat insulation,
and for a variety of other purposes. Today, asbestos is rarely
used in buildings, but there still are structures that contain
the material. Embedded in materials, asbestos is fairly harmless;
airborne, however, it can cause several lung diseases, including
lung cancer and asbestosis. Similarly, lead was a common building
component found in paint and plumbing fixtures and pipes until
the late 1970s. Because lead is easily absorbed into the bloodstream,
often from breathing lead dust or from eating chips of paint containing
lead, it can cause serious health risks, especially in children.
Due to these risks, it has become necessary to remove lead-based
products and asbestos from buildings and structures.
Asbestos abatement workers and lead abatement workers
remove asbestos, lead, and other materials from buildings scheduled
to be renovated or demolished. Using a variety of hand and power
tools, such as vacuums and scrapers, these workers remove the
asbestos and lead from surfaces. A typical residential lead abatement
project involves the use of 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. The vacuums
utilized by asbestos abatement workers have special, highly efficient
filters designed to trap the asbestos, which later is disposed
of or stored. During the abatement, special monitors measure the
amount of asbestos and lead in the air, to protect the workers;
in addition, lead abatement workers wear a personal air monitor
that indicates the amount of lead to which a worker has been exposed.
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.
Transportation of hazardous materials is safer today than it
was in the past, but accidents still occur. Emergency and disaster
responseworkers clean up hazardous materials after
train derailments and trucking accidents. These workers also are
needed when an immediate cleanup is required, as would be the
case after an attack by biological or chemical weapons.
Radioactive materials are classified as either high- or low-level
wastes. High-level wastes are primarily 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 those of janitors and cleaners. They use brooms, mops,
and other tools to clean exposed areas and remove exposed items
for decontamination or disposal. Some of these jobs are now being
done by robots controlled by persons away from the contamination
With experience, decontamination technicians 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 workers remove and
treat radioactive materials generated by nuclear facilities and
power plants. With a variety of handtools, they 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
Treatment, storage, and disposal workers transport and
prepare materials for treatment or disposal. To ensure proper
treatment of the materials, laws require these workers to be able
to verify shipping manifests. At incinerator facilities, treatment,
storage, and disposal 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
landfill 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, earthmoving machinery,
and large trucks and rigs.
Mold remediation is a new and growing part of the work of some
hazardous materials removal workers. Some types of mold can cause
allergic reactions, especially in people who are susceptible to
them. Although mold is present in almost all structures, some
mold—especially the types that cause allergic reactions—can infest
a building to such a degree that extensive efforts must be taken
to remove it safely. Mold typically grows in damp areas, in heating
and air-conditioning ducts, within walls, and in attics and basements.
Although some mold remediation work is undertaken by other construction
workers, mold often must be removed by hazardous materials removal
workers, who take special precautions to protect themselves and
surrounding areas from being contaminated.
Hazardous materials removal workers also may be required to construct
scaffolding or erect containment areas prior to abatement or decontamination.
In most cases, government regulation dictates that hazardous materials
removal workers be closely supervised on the worksite. The standard
usually is 1 supervisor to every 10 workers. The work is highly
structured, sometimes planned years in advance, and team oriented.
There is a great deal of cooperation among supervisors and workers.
Because of the hazard presented by the materials being removed,
work areas are restricted to licensed hazardous materials removal
workers, thus minimizing exposure to the public.
Hazardous materials removal workers function in a highly structured
environment to minimize the danger they face. Each phase of an
operation is planned in advance, and workers are trained to deal
with safety breaches and hazardous situations. Crews and supervisors
take every precaution to ensure that the worksite is safe. Whether
they work with asbestos, mold, lead abatement or in radioactive
decontamination, hazardous materials removal workers must stand,
stoop, and kneel for long periods. Some must wear fully enclosed
personal protective suits for several hours at a time; these suits
may be hot and uncomfortable and may cause some individuals to
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 are common, especially in
asbestos and lead abatement. Asbestos abatement and lead abatement
workers are found primarily in structures such as office buildings
and schools. Because they are under pressure to complete their
work within certain deadlines, workers may experience fatigue.
Completing projects frequently requires night and weekend work,
because hazardous materials removal workers often work around
the schedules of others. Treatment, storage, and disposal workers
are employed primarily at facilities such as landfills, incinerators,
boilers, and industrial furnaces. These facilities often are 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 their jobs.
Decommissioning and decontamination workers, decontamination
technicians, and radiation protection technicians work at nuclear
facilities and electric power plants. Like treatment, storage,
and disposal facilities, these sites often are far from urban
areas. Workers, who often perform jobs in cramped conditions,
may need to use sharp tools to dismantle contaminated objects.
A hazardous materials removal worker must have great self-control
and a level head to cope with the daily stress associated with
handling hazardous materials.
Hazardous materials removal workers may be required to travel
outside their normal working areas in order to respond to emergencies,
the cleanup of which sometimes take several days or weeks to complete.
During the cleanup, workers may be away from home for the entire
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
No formal education beyond a high school diploma is required
for a person to become a hazardous materials removal worker. Federal
regulations require an individual to have a license to work in
the occupation, although, at present, there are few laws regulating
mold removal. Most employers provide technical training on the
job, but a formal 32- to 40-hour training program must be completed
if one is to be licensed as an asbestos abatement and lead abatement
worker or a treatment, storage, and disposal worker. The program
covers health hazards, personal protective equipment and clothing,
site safety, recognition and identification of hazards, and decontamination.
In some cases, workers discover one hazardous material while abating
another. If they are not licensed to work with the newly discovered
material, they cannot continue to work with it. Many experienced
workers opt to take courses in additional disciplines to avoid
this situation. 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 dealing with regulations governing nuclear
materials and radiation safety. These courses add up to approximately
3 months of training, although most are not taken consecutively.
Many agencies, organizations, and companies throughout the country
provide training programs that are approved by the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Energy, and other regulatory
bodies. Workers in all fields are required to take refresher courses
every year in order to maintain their license.
Workers must be able to perform basic mathematical conversions
and calculations, and should have good physical strength and manual
dexterity. Because of the nature of the work and the time constraints
sometimes involved, employers prefer people who are dependable,
prompt, and detail-oriented. Because much of the work is done
in buildings, a background in construction is helpful.
Hazardous materials removal workers held about 38,000 jobs in
2004. About 8 in 10 were employed in waste management and remediation
services. About 1 in 20 were employed in construction, primarily
in asbestos abatement and lead abatement. A small number worked
at nuclear and electric plants as decommissioning and decontamination
workers and radiation safety and decontamination technicians.
Job opportunities are expected to be excellent for hazardous
materials removal workers. The occupation is characterized by
a relatively high rate of turnover, resulting in a number of job
openings each year stemming from experienced workers leaving the
occupation. In addition, many potential workers are not attracted
to this occupation, because they may prefer work that is less
strenuous and has safer working conditions. Experienced workers
will have especially favorable opportunities, particularly in
the private sector, as more State and local governments contract
out hazardous materials removal work to private companies.
Employment of hazardous materials removal workers is expected
to grow much faster than average for all occupations through the
year 2014, reflecting increasing concern for a safe and clean
environment. Special-trade contractors will have strong demand
for the largest segment of these workers, namely, asbestos abatement
and lead abatement workers; lead abatement should offer particularly
good opportunities. Mold remediation is a growing part of the
occupation at the present time, but it is unclear whether the
growth will continue as builders find ways to prevent moisture
from entering homes.
Employment of decontamination technicians, radiation safety technicians,
and decommissioning and decontamination workers is expected to
grow in response to increased pressure for safer and cleaner nuclear
and electric generator facilities. Renewed interest in nuclear
power production could lead to the construction of additional
facilities. However, the number of older closed facilities that
need decommissioning may continue to grow due to Federal legislation.
These workers are less affected by economic fluctuations because
the facilities in which they work must operate, regardless of
the state of the economy.
Median hourly earnings of hazardous materials removal workers
were $16.02 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between
$12.52 and $22.27 per hour. The lowest 10 percent earned less
than $10.48 per hour, and the highest 10 percent earned more than
$27.25 per hour. The median hourly earnings in remediation and
other waste management services, the largest industry employing
hazardous materials removal workers in May 2004, were $15.46.
According to the limited data available, treatment, storage,
and disposal workers usually earn slightly more than asbestos
abatement and lead abatement workers. Decontamination and decommissioning
workers and radiation protection technicians, though constituting
the smallest group, tend to earn the highest wages.
Asbestos abatement workers and lead abatement workers share skills
with other construction trades workers, including painters and
paperhangers; insulation workers; and sheet metal 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 power-plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers and
water and wastewater treatment plant operators. Police officers
and fire fighters also respond to emergencies and often are the
first ones to respond to incidents where hazardous materials may
Sources of Additional Information
For more information on hazardous materials removal workers that
work in the construction industry, including information on training,