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What Hazardous Materials Removal Workers Do

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


Hazmat removal workers typically do the following:

Hazmat removal workers clean up materials that are harmful to people and the environment. The work they do depends on the substances they are cleaning. Removing lead and asbestos is different from cleaning up radiation contamination and toxic spills. Differences also can relate to why these workers have been called in to clean a site. For example, cleaning up a fuel spill from a train derailment is more urgent than removing lead paint from a bridge.

The following are types of hazmat removal workers:

Asbestos abatement workers and lead abatement workers remove asbestos and lead from buildings that are going to be fixed up or taken down. 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 from being used in newer buildings and must be removed from older ones.

Until the 1970s, asbestos was often used in buildings for fireproofing, insulation, and other uses. However, asbestos particles can cause deadly lung diseases. Similarly, until the 1970s, lead was commonly used in paint, pipes, and plumbing fixtures. Inhaling lead dust or ingesting chips of lead-based paint can cause serious health problems, though, especially in children.

Lead abatement workers use chemicals and may need to know how to operate sandblasters, high-pressure water sprayers, and other common tools.

Decommissioning and decontamination workers remove and treat radioactive materials generated by nuclear facilities and powerplants. They break down contaminated items such as “gloveboxes,” which are used to process radioactive materials. When a facility is being closed or decommissioned (taken out of service), these workers clean the facility and decontaminate it from radioactive materials.

Decontamination technicians do tasks similar to those of janitors and cleaners, but the items and areas they clean are radioactive. Some of these jobs are now being done by robots controlled by people away from the contamination site. Increasingly, many of these remote devices automatically monitor and survey floors and walls for contamination.

Emergency and disaster response workers must work quickly to clean up hazardous materials after train and trucking accidents. Immediate, thorough cleanups help to control and prevent more damage to accident or disaster sites.

Radiation-protection technicians use radiation survey meters and other remote devices to locate and assess the hazard associated with radiated materials, operate high-pressure cleaning equipment for decontamination, and package radioactive materials for moving or disposing.

Treatment, storage, and disposal workers transport and prepare materials for treatment, storage, or disposal. To ensure proper treatment of materials, workers must follow laws enforced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). At incinerator facilities, treatment, storage, and disposal workers move materials from the customer or service center to the incinerator. At landfills, they organize and track the location of items in the landfill and may help change the state of a material from liquid to solid to prepare it to be stored. These workers typically operate heavy machinery, such as forklifts, earthmoving machinery, and large trucks and rigs.

Mold remediation makes up a small segment of hazardous materials removal work. Although mold is present in almost all structures and is not usually defined as a hazardous material, 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.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition