Hazardous Materials Specialist

Hazardous materials specialists work to ensure that hazardous materials are handled and controlled in a safe manner and in compliance with regulatory requirements. They can be involved in a variety of activities, for example responding to emergencies, safely disposing of hazardous substances, reclaiming sites, or contributing to the development of legislation for hazardous materials. Hazardous materials specialists acquire their skills through formal education, specialized training, and work experience. Their expertise is essential to the protection of public health and the environment.

At a Glance

Imagine you are sitting in an emergency vehicle with sirens blaring and lights flashing as you race to the scene of a collision. You are a hazardous materials specialist and a member of your city's hazmat emergency response team. You have been called from your regular duties to assess a potentially dangerous situation. According to officials on the scene, a fertilizer truck carrying dangerous goods was broadsided by another vehicle, and the damaged fertilizer tanker is leaking an odorous substance into the streets.

As a hazardous materials specialist, you have responded to dozens of scenes like this, and you know how to get the job done safely. Once you arrive at the wreck, you put on your hazmat suit and adjust your breathing apparatus—every inch of your body is covered and protected. Now you are ready to cross police barriers and approach the collision site. The team's manager will be directing the team from outside the hot zone; you watch that person carefully for instructions.

First, you are told to take a quick look around the scene to determine if there are any obvious hazards, such as telephone lines or open gas lines, that could pose additional problems for the hazmat team. Next, you look for dangerous goods placards on the tanker, which will tell you what the truck was hauling, along with the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) that have information on the substance, including what to do in an emergency. Other team members have been working on stopping the leaking tanker and containing the spill. Once the substance has been confirmed and you know what you're dealing with, you and your team can begin cleaning up and disposing of the fertilizer.

Job Duties

Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as a hazardous materials specialist:

  • Conduct inspections of hazardous materials facilities for compliance with provincial or federal storage, handling, and transportation regulations.
  • Review inventory statements and procedures from businesses responsible for handling, storing or transporting hazardous materials.
  • Collect samples and other evidence of hazardous materials violations, including photographs, records, witnesses, and responsible-party interviews.
  • Oversee the testing of emergency response plans and respond to spills and accidents in conjunction with fire departments.
  • Advise on and participate in clean-ups and investigations.
  • Review submitted samples, plans, and results for compliance with provincial and federal laws.
  • Classify hazardous materials and provide input on management plans.
  • Interpret and update existing legislation and provide input on drafting new regulations.
  • Determine outcomes and performance measures for hazardous waste management plans.
  • Write certificates of approval for recycling, treatment, and disposal facilities.

Work Environment

Hazardous materials specialists work in a variety of locations, including:

In the office:

  • Doing paperwork, analyzing data, and preparing reports
  • Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, colleagues, and government officials
  • Researching hazardous materials regulations and consulting with other professionals

In the field:

  • Touring and inspecting industrial, commercial, and institutional sites
  • Collecting samples and information
  • Conducting emergency clean-ups
  • Conducting studies or investigations, including site drilling and testing
  • Participating in specialized training

Where to Work

There are a number of places hazardous materials specialists can find employment. They include:

  • Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal government departments
  • Environmental and engineering consulting firms
  • Waste management and recycling firms
  • Firms in industries that generate hazardous waste, for example, health care, mining, forestry, and petroleum

Education and Skills

If you are a high school student considering a career as a hazardous materials specialist, you should have strong marks or an interest in:

  • Chemistry
  • Biology
  • Mathematics
  • Computer Science

In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as a hazardous materials specialist is a technical diploma. If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as a hazardous materials specialist, the following programs are most applicable:

  • Occupational Health and Safety
  • Health Sciences
  • Environmental Health
  • Environmental Science
  • Pure and Applied Science
  • Chemical Engineering
  • Environmental Engineering Technology
  • Hazardous materials specialists also require specialized hazmat training.

It is not necessary to be certified in order to work as a hazardous materials specialist.

Role Models

Don Wilson

My chemistry skills helped me to get a job as a lab technician after I graduated from high school. I have always enjoyed being active, so I joined the volunteer fire department in my community. The decision to leave the laboratory and take fire-fighting training was not a hard one for me to make. It was the beginning of a full-time fire-fighter career. Over the last twenty years, the fire department has evolved from dealing directly with emergency situations involving dangerous goods to a growing awareness of how people’s activities affect the department.

I was part of the first full-time hazardous materials response team in our region. We are responsible for stopping the leak or spill, neutralizing the product and ensuring the right people are involved to close the loop on the hazardous material cleanup. My role as a Shift Instructor got me a full-time training position in the Fire Department Academy. The most practical knowledge of how to do my present position as a Hazardous Materials Coordinator came from working as a Hazardous Materials Officer in charge of several large scale incidents, including an oil refinery fire and gasoline and propane tanker rollovers.

There is a never-ending learning curve in this type of work. My department was the first in Canada to take live agent training in weapons of mass destruction and is always looking at environmental issues and training opportunities to be prepared for unexpected events. The city fire department where I work is one of the very few in the world that are ISO 14001 registered. It is a demanding task to gain and keep this registration but it is also a significant accomplishment that others in my profession aspire to. The future of Hazardous Materials Specialists is changing. There will be more of a community focus with a greater emphasis on the investigation of polluters.

Fire departments will take a compliance approach, looking to stop pollution and fix problems before they become environmental issues. Hazardous Materials Specialists will have opportunities to take lead roles in remediation of sites, consulting to business and advising other government or city departments about environmental impacts. My first fire chief told me "The day you come to work and not like it is the time to leave.” Fortunately, I enjoy everything about my job. If you share the same enthusiasm for interaction with people, excitement on the job and seeing immediate positive results as I do, this may be the career for you.

Take some related post-secondary education and be in good physical condition. You can enter the fire department as a firefighter and with training and experience move yourself up to other positions. My position as a Hazardous Materials Coordinator is a day job with a week once per month on call. Normal daily routines include meetings, managing projects, developing priorities and responding to emergencies. The skill sets required for this work range from the analysis of infrared instrument data, to patching holes in railcars, to dealing with explosive weapons. In an emergency situation I coordinate regulatory agencies and manage the hazardous materials incident.

These situations involve interaction with personnel from Alberta Environment, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Environment Canada, Bylaw Officers, Police Tactical Units, RCMP and the City Environmental Management Unit. It is an advantage to be able to see my position from many angles as I can assess the impacts of hazardous materials on the environment, coordinate an effective cleanup and learn how to prevent future environmental hazards. All across the country cities are facing a problem of discarded needles in parks and playgrounds.

My department has established a needle recovery program that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, USA has referred to as the best they have seen. The CDC intends to use our program as a template for other communities. I have also made a contribution to the management of chemical fires. After experiencing a large oil refinery fire my department realized we had no practical means of determining whether the air downwind of a chemical fire contained enough hazardous material to justify evacuating the neighborhood. To solve this problem I coordinated the development of a portable air-monitoring unit. This positively pressurized, vehicle-based lab can position itself downwind of a fire, sample the plume and provide analysis from inside the vehicle. We have recently started to use this new equipment and I anticipate it will help us save people’s lives as well as protect the environment.

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