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


Hazmat removal workers typically do the following:

  • Follow safety procedures during cleanup
  • Comply with state and federal laws regarding waste disposal
  • Test hazardous materials to determine 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 and waste 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 and the cleanup location. For example, removing lead and asbestos is different from cleaning up radiation contamination and toxic spills, and cleaning up a fuel spill from a train derailment is more urgent than removing lead paint from a bridge.

The following are examples of types of hazmat removal workers:

Asbestos abatement workers and lead abatement workers remove asbestos and lead, respectively, from buildings and structures, particularly those that 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.

Until the 1970s, asbestos was often used in buildings for fireproofing and insulation. 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 may cause serious health problems, especially in children.

Lead abatement workers apply chemicals to walls in order to remove lead-based paint. Once applied, workers strip the walls, package the residue and paint chips, and place them in approved bags or containers for proper disposal. Some 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.

Decommissioning and decontamination workers remove and treat radioactive materials generated by nuclear facilities and power plants. 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 perform tasks similar to those of janitors and cleaners, but the items and areas they clean are radioactive.

Emergency and disaster response workers clean up hazardous materials in response to natural or man-made disasters and accidents, such as those involving trains, trucks, or other vehicles transporting hazardous materials. Timely and thorough cleanups help to control and prevent more damage to accident or disaster sites.

Radiation-protection technicians measure, record, and report radiation levels; operate high-pressure cleaning equipment for decontamination; and package radioactive materials for removal or storage.

Treatment, storage, and disposal workers prepare and transport hazardous materials for treatment, storage, or disposal. To ensure proper treatment of materials, workers must follow U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations. They move materials from contaminated sites to incinerators, landfills, or storage facilities. They also organize and track the location of items in these facilities. Workers typically operate heavy machinery, such as forklifts, earthmoving machinery, and large trucks.

Mold remediation workers represent a small segment of hazardous materials removal. Although mold is not usually defined as a hazardous material, some mold—especially the types that cause allergic reactions—can affect a building to the extent that the mold must be removed. Workers typically use wet vacuums to remove water, dehumidifiers to reduce humidity levels, and fans to dry the affected areas. They sometimes must use chemicals to neutralize the mold or remove entire sections of drywall, insulation, or carpet.

Work Environment

Hazardous materials (hazmat) removal workers held about 37,500 jobs in 2012. About 77 percent were employed in the waste management and remediation services industry.

Working conditions differ depending on the hazardous material being cleaned. Nonetheless, workers usually must stand for long periods.

Asbestos and lead abatement workers typically work in office buildings, schools, or historic buildings that are being renovated. Completing projects often requires night and weekend work to meet deadlines.

Treatment, storage, and disposal workers are usually employed at facilities such as landfills, incinerators, and industrial furnaces.

Decommissioning and decontamination workers and technicians work at nuclear facilities and electric power plants.

Injuries and Illnesses

Because cleaning or removing hazardous materials is dangerous, workers must follow specific safety procedures to avoid injuries and illnesses. They usually work in teams and must follow careful instructions from a team leader or site supervisor. Each phase of an operation is planned in advance, and workers are trained to deal with hazardous situations. Crews and supervisors take every safety measure to ensure that the worksite is safe.

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

Work Schedules

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 impacted by a disaster. During a cleanup, workers may be away from home until a project is complete, which may take several days or weeks.

Hazmat removal workers at nuclear facilities are busiest during refueling and may experience unemployment during other times.

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. Some hazmat removal workers must be licensed. Positions in nuclear facilities require candidates to be U.S. citizens, pass a security background investigation, and pass drug and alcohol abuse screening.


Hazmat removal workers need a high school diploma. Although not required, associate’s degree programs related to radiation protection may help candidates seeking positions in nuclear facilities.


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

As part of this training, 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 workers handle. The training is given either in-house or in OSHA-approved training centers. It 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 and work requirements set by state or federal agencies on handling that material. For example, employees who only have a license for mold removal can only work on mold remediation.

Workers who treat asbestos or lead, the most common contaminants, must complete an employer-sponsored training program that meets OSHA standards. Employer-sponsored training is usually given in-house, and the employer is responsible for covering all technical and safety subjects outlined by OSHA.

Extensive training is required for decommissioning and decontamination workers employed at nuclear facilities. In addition to completing the hazardous waste removal training that meets OSHA standards, workers must take courses on nuclear materials and radiation safety as mandated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

These courses add up to about 3 months of training, although most are not taken consecutively. Many agencies, organizations, and companies nationwide provide training programs that are approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Energy, and other regulatory agencies.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

In addition to completing the training required by OSHA, some states also have permit or license requirements, particularly for mold remediation and 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 their license, 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 previous work experience is not required, some employers prefer candidates with experience in the construction trades, such as construction laborers and helpers.

In addition, some employers at nuclear facilities prefer to hire workers with at least 2 years of related work experience. Experience in the U.S. Navy or experience working as a janitor at a nuclear facility may be helpful.

Important 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.


The median annual wage for hazardous materials (hazmat) removal workers was $37,590 in May 2012. 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 $25,000, and the top 10 percent earned more than $66,730.

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

Hazmat removal workers may be required to travel to areas impacted by a disaster. During a cleanup, workers may be away from home until a project is complete, which may take several days or weeks.

Hazmat removal workers at nuclear facilities are busiest during refueling and may experience unemployment during other times.

Job Outlook

Employment of hazardous materials (hazmat) removal workers is projected to grow 14 percent from 2012 to 2022, about as fast as the average for all occupations.

Employment growth will be driven by the need to safely remove and clean up abandoned hazmat sites recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency. Efforts to recycle waste on a larger scale should also contribute to some employment growth.

In addition, with a number of nuclear plants scheduled to close or decommission in the coming decade, hazmat removal workers will be needed to decontaminate equipment, store waste, and clean up these facilities for safe closure.

However, overall employment growth of hazmat removal workers will be limited by the amount of federal funding for many of these projects. Furthermore, with a declining number of structures containing asbestos and lead, demand for workers who remove these materials will be moderated.

Job Prospects

Many job openings are expected because of the need to replace workers who leave the occupation each year.

Applicants who have previous work experience with reactors in the U.S. Navy may have better job opportunities at nuclear facilities.

Lead and asbestos workers will have limited job opportunities as the pace of restoration of federal and historic buildings slows. Also, hazmat removal workers should continue to face competition from 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 and Health Administration

U.S. Department of Energy

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency        

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission