Recognizing Hazardous Materials Workers on Labor Day

By Nicholas Alexander

As Labor Day approaches, I’d like to honor the men and women who do the dangerous and difficult labor required to protect the health of our communities and natural environment from hazardous waste and toxins. When millions of gallons of oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico, these individuals were there to clean it up. When lead paint chips were discovered in an elementary school in my neighborhood, these folks stepped in to make it safe again for children. While most people avoid industrially contaminated “brownfield” areas, hazardous materials (hazmat) workers don safety gear and seek out the sources of danger. These situations require not only extraordinary courage, but also significant training on chemical reactions and the ability to work quickly and safely under duress. Hazmat workers and emergency responders are unsung heroes of the environmental protection and environmental justice movements.

“RichmondBUILD trainees suit up in full protective gear for the first time.”

Working conditions in the hazmat sector are taxing, to put it mildly. The physical exertion required for most jobs is similar to a construction zone, which includes routinely lifting 75-pounds or more. This work must be accomplished while wearing personal protective equipment that is heavy and restricts breathing and movement. A typical hazmat suit is an impermeable garment that covers the whole body and is combined with a breathing apparatus to filter unsafe airborne particles or provide clean air from a tank. In comparison, your Monday morning blues don’t seem so tough.

So why do people decide to do this work? When I talk with graduates of the RichmondBUILD Careers Academy, a hazmat job-training program funded by the EPA, these jobs provide economic opportunity to those who need them most. Folks who have been hit especially hard by the economic recession and have been unemployed for months or those who face discrimination in more traditional job markets can earn living wages and climb career ladders in the hazmat industry.

I’d like to celebrate hazmat workers from RichmondBUILD and around the country for both the critical services they provide to our nation and their economic success earned through hard work. Labor Day is a time to recognize the contributions of those workers who often go unseen and unheard, so let’s all be grateful for the men and women who put their lives at risk to protect us from past, present and future environmental hazards.

About the author: Nicholas Alexander manages the EPA-funded hazmat training at RichmondBUILD Careers Academy in Richmond, California. He is also an advocate for workers’ rights, communities of color and the poor.