How to Become a HAZMAT Truck Driver
If you want to drive commercial trucks for a living and are a naturally cautious person, a career as a hazardous materials (HAZMAT) truck driver may be right for you. While HAZMAT driving can be lucrative even compared to standard trucking, the career comes with inherent risks.
This guide discusses what a HAZMAT truck driver does, how to become a HAZMAT driver, salary and job growth expectations for HAZMAT driving, and the risks involved with the job.
What Does a HAZMAT Truck Driver Do?
A HAZMAT truck driver is a professional driver responsible for transporting toxic materials safely. These drivers adhere to a strict set of procedures to ensure the general population’s health and protection from harm. These haulers have a commercial driver’s license (CDL) and are trained in handling, delivering, and disposing of hazardous substances.
From perfume to gasoline, goods classified as hazardous materials are incredibly common in daily life, so HAZMAT drivers are constantly on the road. Given the level of training HAZMAT drivers undergo, most employers consider these tanker drivers responsible and experienced. In this way, HAZMAT drivers are often afforded a high level of freedom in their work.
What is a HAZMAT Driver’s Job Description?
HAZMAT drivers’ tasks include transporting hazardous waste and picking up and dropping off fuel. HAZMAT drivers normally don’t handle the materials they’re transporting. Instead, their clients are usually responsible for loading and unloading shipments.
These professionals are expected to keep meticulous records of their trips. Drivers must also adjust routes for maximum safety, considering road conditions, traffic, population density, and timeliness of delivery.
Local job opportunities are available for transporting HAZMAT loads, but most hazardous substances are shipped long distances. HAZMAT drivers should be prepared for regional and over-the-road (OTR) trips.
What Types of Materials do HAZMAT Truckers Haul?
The hazardous materials HAZMAT drivers transport are divided into nine classes by the federal government. HAZMAT drivers transport a wide assortment of goods:
- Class 1: Explosive materials
- Class 2: Gases, such as household petroleum-based products
- Class 3: Flammable and combustible liquids, such as gasoline, ethanol, and diesel fuel
- Class 4: Flammable solids, spontaneously combustible materials, and dangerous when wet materials
- Class 5: Oxidizers and organic peroxides
- Class 6: Toxic materials and infectious substances, such as agricultural pesticides
- Class 7: Radioactive materials
- Class 8: Corrosive materials
- Class 9: Miscellaneous dangerous goods
All liquid and liquefied gas materials must be transported in a tank vehicle, so such goods require an X endorsement to haul. This is an endorsement above and beyond the H endorsement allowing a driver to transport HAZMAT.
Steps to Becoming a HAZMAT Driver
To qualify as a HAZMAT driver, you must be 21 years old, be a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident, and have a commercial driver’s license (CDL) and U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) medical card.
The basic steps to earning your HAZMAT endorsement are:
- Earn your CDL
- Train for your HAZMAT (H or X) endorsement
- Take your HAZMAT test(s)
- Pass a background check in addition to the typical physical exam
Steps 1 and 2: Earn Your CDL and Endorsements
First, earn your CDL at a trucking school or through a company’s training program. You can do this before or while earning your HAZMAT-related endorsements.
The HAZMAT-specific endorsement is H, though it’s recommended you also obtain an N tank vehicle endorsement since the majority of hazardous goods are shipped in tanker trucks.
You can receive both certifications with an X endorsement, combining the N and H endorsements, though you can earn the two separately if that better fits your needs.
Company-paid training for endorsements varies by state and company, but it isn’t uncommon.
Step 3: Take Your HAZMAT Exams
You must pass the Hazardous Materials Endorsement Knowledge test. This special written test covers federal and state regulations and guidelines on transporting, loading, and unloading hazardous materials. If you’re applying for the X endorsement, you’ll need to take two separate knowledge tests. Test fees vary by state but generally cost between $15-20.
Step 4: Pass Your Criminal Background Check
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) conducts the criminal background check, which costs $86.50. The results can take anywhere from 30-60 days to complete.
Dozens of crimes could prevent you—temporarily or permanently—from being eligible for a HAZMAT trucking endorsement. The permanent disqualifiers are:
- Improper transport of a hazardous material
- Transportation security incident
- Threatening to use explosives in a public or governmental space (whether true or not)
- Unlawful possession, use, sale, receipt, or dealing of explosives
- Violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act or similar
- Conspiracy to commit any of the above
Other convictions can prevent you from obtaining a license for five to seven years, depending on the circumstances. If you’re currently under want, warrant, or indictment for a felony, you may not get your HAZMAT license until you’ve been cleared or your warrant has been dismissed.
As of 2019, commercial vehicle operators of any sort are banned from the field if convicted of human trafficking.
HAZMAT Driver Salaries
The number of HAZMAT trucking jobs is expected to increase over the next decade as nuclear facilities close and the Environmental Protection Agency works to remove hazardous waste. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the career is expected to grow at a faster-than-average rate of 8%.
Having a HAZMAT endorsement may open up you up to more job opportunities and higher earning potential. The following list of HAZMAT-related jobs and their salaries gives you an idea of possible career options:
- Fuel truck driver: $59,847 annually
- Hazardous waste shipper: $58,000 annually
- HAZMAT owner-operator: $143,185 annually
- International tanker owner operator: $135,350 annually
- Radioactive waste shipper: $50,000 annually
- Senior tanker owner-operator: $139,321 annually
HAZMAT truck drivers tend to earn more because of the additional required training and possible dangers encountered on the job.
How Dangerous is Being a HAZMAT Truck Driver?
Tanker truck accidents involving HAZMAT substances are significantly more dangerous than normal roadway accidents. The materials HAZMAT drivers haul can have harmful—even deadly—consequences. That’s why safety is highly prioritized in the profession.
The DOT Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration Office of Hazardous Material Safety reported 155,230 highway incidents involving hazardous materials from 2011 through 2020 leading to 93 deaths and 1,333 injuries related to these incidents.
Collision accidents aren’t the only ways in which HAZMAT drivers are at risk. HAZMAT drivers can be exposed to the following dangers:
- Explosions: Highly volatile materials can trigger an explosion causing injury or death to nearby individuals.
- Radiation: Being near radioactive substances can endanger a person’s health, and a radioactive spill can cause irreparable damage to the environment and surrounding population.
- Chemical burns: An accident involving corrosive materials can cause chemical burns and may even result in death.
- Fire: Flammable materials can ignite if a crash occurs, increasing the risk of harm to the driver and bystanders.
- Poisoning: Toxic materials can contaminate the groundwater and become fatal if consumed.
- Lung health: Smoking and HAZMAT transportation don’t mix. Media reports have revealed HAZMAT truck drivers often smoke while driving. Smoking while transporting flammable materials can cause fire or explosions.
Because of these higher risks, there will always be some truck drivers who would prefer not to be HAZMAT drivers. For those who are willing to take on the risk in exchange for higher pay and the responsibility of transporting some of the nation’s most critical loads, HAZMAT driving is a career to consider.