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Interview with an Asbestos Estimator
This gentleman shares his story of working in the asbestos removal industry for three years. During that time he worked long hours, and faced challenges such as dealing with government regulations and union labor disputes. If you have considered a career in asbestos removal, this interview will shed some light on lessons you may not have learned in school, and help prevent you from learning some tough things the hard way.

Q: What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How many years of experience do you have in this field? How would you describe yourself using only three adjectives?

A: I was an estimator for an asbestos abatement company and a field clerk for a hazardous waste remediation company. The firm I worked for owned a demolition company, asbestos abatement company, and a hazardous waste remediation firm. I have worked for this company in several different capacities for three years. Three adjectives that described me while I was working there would have been tired, excited, and anxious. I was always tired because we worked constantly to try to get jobs done on time and some of the jobs required a significant amount of driving. I was usually excited because every day in the environmental contracting industry brought something new. But I was anxious because you never knew if that new thing would be a government citation that shuts your job down.

Q: What’s your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you? If you ever experienced discrimination, how have you responded and what worked best?

A: I am a white male. To be honest, in contracting, being a white male did not give me any kind of advantage. In environmental contracting, it was all about how well you followed orders, knew the laws and could get the job done. Another thing I noticed about environmental laborers is that there was almost no outward racism that I saw. Our crews were wide mixes of all kinds of ethnicities and I don’t ever remember any kind of racial problems ever.

Q: How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail? Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?

A: I was primarily a site supervisor and records keeper. It was my job to supply the field managers with information and supplies that they needed, as well as to have any kind of certification information the government may need on file and be ready to produce it in the case of an inspection. I would get to the job site early, take attendance of each crew, collect any paperwork needed, discuss the job and any upcoming important inspections or events with the project managers, and then act as the liaison between the field and the office. One of the common misconceptions about environmental estimators and job clerks is that we do not get directly involved in the work on each project. I was involved in containment issues, disposal arrangements and testing procedures for every job.

Q: On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What might need to change about your job to unleash your full enthusiasm?

A: As a job, environmental contracting probably rates around a five out of 10. The work is usually pretty interesting, but the regulations can really take the fun out of anything. For me to get really enthused about the job I was doing I would need to eliminate some of the labor unions and government regulators I was forced to work with on a daily basis. The regulators would say that something needed to be done to keep the job up to code, and the union workers would often refuse to do it. People don’t realize that environmental contracting is a constant negotiation process.

Q: If this job moves your heart – how so? Ever feel like you found your calling or sweet spot in life? If not, what might do it for you?

A: I was never comfortable in environmental contracting because the focus was more on the profit and the letter of the law than it was on creating a clean environment for the planet. There were times when I felt like we were really accomplishing something worthwhile in getting rid of dangerous asbestos and toxic waste. But when all of that good work gets tangled in government red tape, it can take the feeling of satisfaction out of it.

Q: Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?

A: One of the advantages to working in environmental contracting is that you get the chance to work on some very iconic projects. When you see a famous building getting imploded to the ground, the chances are very good that an environmental contractor went into that building first to clear out all of the hazardous materials that could have contaminated the air or ground if they were not properly handled. The list of famous projects and famous contractors I have worked with thanks to the sensitive job of environmental contracting is something I will always be very proud of.

Q: How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?

A: My uncle worked as an environmental testing contractor and introduced me to the lead estimator of the top environmental contractor in the area as soon as I graduated from college. Within days, I was out learning the business of environmental contracting. If I could go back I would change my attitude towards travel. My list of accomplishments is something I am proud of, but I was consistently presented with the chance to work on internationally famous projects in states around the country. But, because I did not want to travel, I turned every one of those jobs down. Environmental work takes you all over the world, and that is something people need to realize before getting involved in the field.

Q: What did you learn the hard way in this job and what happened specifically that led up to this lesson?

A: I learned to always watch my step in dangerous work areas. In one incident, I was walking along a series of 12-inch wide beams stacked about six feet off the ground. I was making notes and not paying attention to what I was doing. I took a wrong step and the next thing I know I am lying on my back. In another incident, I was looking over an asbestos removal job and crawled into a tight space without first checking to see if it was stable. Once I was inside, a huge sheet of material fell on me. Luckily I was wearing a respirator and coveralls, but I learned my lesson at that point.

Q: What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?

A: Learn how to evaluate people and judge whether or not you can trust someone. In my environmental contracting experience, I trusted people I should not have trusted and it cost my company money. Let people earn your trust rather than just giving it to them because of who they are.

Q: What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?

A: The government shut down a job site because one of our subcontractors was removing asbestos from a building without wearing shoes or gloves. It was the strangest thing I had ever seen.

Q: Why do you get up and go to work each day? Can you give an example of something that really made you feel good or proud?

A: I used to get up and go to work each day because I had a tremendous amount of responsibility and I really could not call in sick. No one else in the company did what I did, and it needed to be done each work day. My proudest moments were working on projects that cleared the way for improvements to my hometown.

Q: What kind of challenges do you handle and what makes you want to just quit?

A: The constant contrast between what project managers want, what the government is willing to allow and what laborers are willing to do used to drive me completely mad. Something as simple as changing a shift to start and end at different times took two weeks of arguing and a pile of paperwork. Bureaucracy is enough to make you want to quit any job, regardless of how well it paid.

Q: How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance? How?

A: My job was incredibly stressful, but that may have been one of the things that allowed me to maintain a healthy work-life balance. When I left a job site, I left my job behind. I never took my work home and that allowed me to really appreciate the time I spent home. I was not always able to be at home as much as I wanted to, but I knew how to make my personal time count when I was home.

Q: What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?

A: An environmental project clerk or estimator made about $30,000 a year when I was working. I have kept in contact with many people from my contracting days and I have found out that, if you are willing to travel, environmental contracting can pay as much as $60,000 to $75,000 a year for a clerk or estimator. If your projects generate a profit, then the job pays even more.

Q: How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?

A: In three years, I took one vacation that lasted one week. Contractors are a hearty bunch and they consider out of town work to be vacations. It would have been nice, and probably beneficial, to take at least one vacation per year. After a few months of looking at hazardous waste remediation and asbestos removal sites, I could have used a change of scenery.

Q: What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?

A: Training in the environmental contracting field is critical. It takes years of experience to learn all of the equipment, and the classroom training to learn the safest ways to work takes months. There are now college degrees available in environmental remediation that people getting into the field now would greatly benefit from. But it is important to remember that much of what you learn in the environmental remediation industry is on-the-job training.

Q: What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?

A: If you are ready to put in the hours and do the travel, then you will make a very nice life for yourself. If you are looking for a 9 to 5 Monday through Friday job, then environmental contracting is the wrong line of work.

Q: If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?

A: If I had stayed in environmental contracting I would have almost certainly gotten into recycling. Reusing materials of all kinds was just catching on when I left the industry and, not only is it all extremely interesting, but it is also financially lucrative.