Chemistry degree leads to career for hazardous materials specialist


Every day, Joe Kaslowski keeps people safe.

Kaslowski and the five other risk reduction officers at Anaheim Fire & Rescue ensure hazardous materials are properly stored at local businesses and mitigate dangerous situations in which chemical reactions put life and property in danger.

Joseph Kaslowski, Hazardous Materials Specialist for Anaheim Fire & Rescue, left, walks through Magnetic Metals in Anaheim with Facility Manager Rick Costello.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

Mixing the wrong materials can cause dangerous off-gassing, fires, or explosions.

“You can’t just put acids and bases together in the same area,” Kaslowski said. “If we have an earthquake, if somebody runs into it with a forklift… you can’t have these two things mix because it would catch fire, harm people, or kill somebody.”

Mostly, unsafe mixing happens by accident when someone pours material into the wrong storage drum. When gas from a chemical reaction causes the drum to bulge or to catch fire, Kaslowski, his teammates, and oftentimes the Hazardous Materials Response Team and bomb squad are called to the scene.

Joseph Kaslowski, Hazardous Materials Specialist for Anaheim Fire & Rescue, talks about his background in chemistry and how he finds stress relief working with metal.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

In one instance, an employee mixed an acid and base waste material. Later, after employees had gone home for the day, the drum blew up and landed in a rafter 30 feet in the air.

Accidental mixing is the most common cause of an emergency scenario, Kaslowski said.

“They come back two hours later and the thing’s twice the size and it’s a giant pipe bomb basically, filled with whatever material was in there,” he said.

Another time, Kaslowski and the bomb squad were called to a local senior living facility when staff members realized a resident was building fireworks in his apartment. Officials had to remove the carpet because potentially explosive powders and liquids were scattered across the floor, Kaslowski said.

Sometimes, the officers let the gasses diffuse safely over time, but other times bomb squad robots are called to pierce a drum and release the pressure before an explosion can happen.

Joseph Kaslowski, Hazardous Materials Specialist for Anaheim Fire & Rescue, ensures hazardous materials are properly stored at local businesses.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

“There’s a million and one scenarios and you can train and you can plan and you can discuss, but you’ll never know what the actual scenario is until you get there,” Kaslowski said.

In fact, seven years ago, Kaslowski met his wife though his job. His father-in-law was a contact at an inspection, and called the agency a couple days later.

“He said, ‘I just thought you were a super nice guy and I think you and my daughter would get along real well,’” Kaslowski recalls. “He gave me her number and we went out on a blind date… she was awesome. We clicked right off the bat.”

Kaslowski is a hazardous materials expert, though he and his team also handle life safety issues such as fire sprinklers, safety equipment, and fire codes.

Nuriam Florez of Magnetic Metals in Anaheim coats electrical tools for insulation in a process called fluidizing.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

As a college student, Kaslowski intended to major in business.

But when the impacted program would have cost him a few semesters of waiting, he went a different direction: chemistry.

“I had always done well in chemistry,” Kaslowski said. “I’m really interested in cause and origin type stuff; why things happen the way they do and why things interact the way they do. In chemistry or just science in general, whether you know it or not, there’s always an answer for something.”

That degree, with a minor in business administration, led him to a job straight out of Cal State Fullerton working at the Department of Toxic Substances Control. And that, in turn, led him to Anaheim Fire and Rescue.

Kaslowski is one of five Community Risk Reduction Officers and one supervisor who make up the Anaheim CUPA, that is, the Certified Unified Program Agencies that ensure that hazardous waste is handled correctly throughout the state in a uniform manner.

Joseph Kaslowski, Hazardous Materials Specialist for Anaheim Fire & Rescue, arrives at Magnetic Metals, which specializes in manufacturing custom components for transformers, for an inspection.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

“We really try to work hand in hand with the businesses and provide them a service,” he said. “We really try to help people through the process, help them understand what’s going on, why these regulations are what they are.”

The Anaheim Fire & Rescue team inspects the nearly 16,000 business and programs in the city, and are on call 24/7/365 for emergency situations. They inspect underground storage tanks, like those at gas stations; businesses that treat hazardous waste on site, such as a chrome plating companies; and anyone who handles or stores hazardous materials in Anaheim.

“I feel like a lot of the people here go above and beyond what they need to do with helping people or the public,” Kaslowski said. The best part of the job, he said, is the variety.

“I really like being outside,” he said. “There’s just something nice about not being stuck in an office, and being able to go outside, go into different businesses, you really get to see how everything works.”