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HAZARDOUS MATERIALS TECHNICIAN - Education And Training, Case Study: Dioxin, For More Information - Salary, Outlook

technicians radioactive waste danger

A rapidly growing field for technicians with an interest in environmental protection is the removal and disposal of hazardous materials. “Hazmats” are anything judged a danger to public health and safety and include lead, asbestos, radioactive material, and a host of deadly chemicals, such as corrosive acids and PCBs. Frequently, hazardous materials technicians are the ones called to clean up a toxic spill when there's been a truck, railroad, or shipping accident.

This is a high-stress, risky job, like fire fighting or being part of a bomb squad. You never know where the danger is coming from, when it will come, or exactly what it will be, but you know it's coming. You have to be prepared for anything, including long stretches when nothing happens, or overtime when too much happens at once. Those who work in the emergency field are called hazwopers (hazardous waste operations emergency response).

Technicians work at the site of the contamination, which means they must be able to travel at a moment's notice and perhaps stay away from home for days. Sometimes contaminated sites are evacuated and cordoned off.

In detoxifying a site, technicians use a variety of tools and equipment, from brooms to fire hoses. They frequently have to wear protective gear such as coveralls, gloves, hardhats, safety glasses, and face shields, to protect themselves from the danger of contamination. Sometimes they carry respirators as well.

The training for hazmat technicians is intensive. There are hundreds of toxic chemicals and each one requires special handling. Biological waste from hospitals and clinics is a danger, too. It includes materials contaminated by bacteria and viruses, some of them deadly.

Strict procedures must be followed in the disposal of hazardous wastes, as mandated by law and enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In a lead abatement project, technicians strip lead-based paint from the walls of a home. They put the contaminant in an impregnable container which is then transported to a storage site. Asbestos, which was once used for fireproofing and insulation, too, is considered a hazardous material and must be carefully removed and discarded.

Radioactive material is also a major problem. High-level radioactive waste comes from nuclear reactors and certain industrial sites. If it isn't contained, it threatens the health and safety of everyone for miles around. Nuclear accidents are rare, and reactors have their own safety procedures for containment and cool down. The greater danger is from radioactive material that is being transported.

Low-level radiation is found on hospital uniforms and medical equipment. D&D (decommissioning and decontamination) technicians use radiation survey meters to locate radioactive materials and evaluate how “hot” they are. They wear radiation-sensitive badges to let them know when they're hot and must wash down. To decontaminate a radioactive site, technicians use high-pressure cleaning equipment. TSD (treatment, storage, and disposal) technicians package radioactive waste in shielded containers for disposal at an approved site.

New hazmats will likely come to public attention in the years ahead.

Salary

The pay in hazardous waste removal ranges from $10.50 to $18 an hour for someone without a postsecondary education. As in all technical fields, the more you know, the more you earn.

Outlook

This field is growing, due to increased pressure for a safer and cleaner environment and the increase in toxic and dangerous wastes. Technicians may find employment with local government agencies, with generalized disposal firms, or with specialized hazardous waste removal companies.

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