Insulation Worker Careers

Significant Points

  • Workers must follow strict safety guidelines to protect themselves from insulating irritants.
  • Most insulation workers learn their work informally on the job; mechanical insulators usually complete formal apprenticeship programs.
  • Job opportunities are expected to be excellent.

Nature of the Work

Properly insulated buildings reduce energy consumption by keeping heat in during the winter and out in the summer. Vats, tanks, vessels, boilers, steam and hot-water pipes, and refrigerated storage rooms also are insulated to prevent the wasteful loss of heat or cold and to prevent burns. Insulation also helps to reduce the noise that passes through walls and ceilings. Insulation workers install the materials used to insulate buildings and mechanical equipment.

Insulation workers, mechanical, apply insulating materials to pipes and ductwork, or other mechanical systems, in order to help control and maintain temperature. When covering a steam pipe, for example, these insulation workers measure and cut sections of insulation to the proper length, stretch it open along a cut that runs the length of the material, and slip it over the pipe. They then fasten the insulation with adhesive, staples, tape, or wire bands. Sometimes, they wrap a cover of aluminum, plastic, or canvas over the insulation and cement or band the cover in place. Finally, mechanical insulation workers may screw on metal around insulated pipes to protect the insulation from the weather or physical abuse.

Insulation workers, floor, ceiling, and wall, apply or blow in insulation in attics and exterior walls. When blowing-in loose-fill insulation, a helper feeds a machine with fiberglass, cellulose, or rock-wool insulation, while another worker blows the insulation with a compressor hose into the space being filled. When covering a wall or other flat surface, these insulation workers may use a hose to spray foam insulation onto a wire mesh that provides a rough surface to which the foam can cling and that adds strength to the finished surface. Workers may then install drywall or apply a final coat of plaster for a finished appearance. In new construction or on major renovations, insulation workers staple fiberglass or rock-wool batts to exterior walls and ceilings before drywall, paneling, or plaster walls are put in place.

In making major renovations to old buildings or when putting new insulation around pipes and industrial machinery, insulation workers often must first remove the old insulation. In the past, asbestos-now known to cause cancer in humans-was used extensively in walls and ceilings and to cover pipes, boilers, and various industrial equipment. Because of this danger, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations require that asbestos be removed before a building undergoes major renovations or is demolished. When asbestos is present, specially trained workers must remove it before insulation workers can install the new insulating materials.

Insulation workers use common handtools, including trowels, brushes, knives, scissors, saws, pliers, and stapling guns. They may use power saws to cut insulating materials, welding machines to join metal or secure clamps, and compressors to blow or spray insulation.

Work environment. Insulation workers generally work indoors in residential and industrial settings. They spend most of the workday on their feet, either standing, bending, or kneeling. They also work from ladders or in confined spaces. Their work usually requires more coordination than strength. In industrial settings, these workers often insulate pipes and vessels at temperatures that may cause burns. Minute particles from insulation materials, especially when blown, can irritate the eyes, skin, and respiratory system.

Insulation workers who install insulation on floors, ceilings, and walls experience a high rate of injuries and illnesses. Consequently, workers must follow strict safety guidelines to protect themselves from insulating irritants. They must keep work areas well ventilated; wear protective suits, masks, and respirators; and take decontamination showers when necessary. Most insulation is applied after buildings are enclosed, so weather conditions have less effect on the employment of insulation workers than some other construction workers.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Most insulation workers learn their trade informally on the job, although most mechanical insulators complete formal apprenticeship programs.

Education and training. Employers prefer to hire high school graduates. High school courses in blueprint reading, shop mathematics, science, pattern layout, woodworking, and general construction provide a helpful background.

Most new workers receive instruction and supervision from experienced insulation workers. Trainees begin with simple tasks, such as carrying insulation or holding material while it is fastened in place. On-the-job training can take up to 4 years. Learning to install insulation in homes generally requires less training than does learning to apply insulation in commercial and industrial settings. As they gain experience, trainees receive less supervision, more responsibility, and higher pay.

Trainees in formal apprenticeship programs receive in-depth instruction in all phases of insulation. Apprenticeships are generally offered by contractors that install and maintain mechanical industrial insulation. Apprenticeship programs may be provided by a joint committee of local insulation contractors and the local union of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers, to which some insulation workers belong. Programs normally consist of 4 or 5 years of on-the-job training coupled with classroom instruction, and apprentices must pass practical and written tests to demonstrate their knowledge of the trade.

Licensure. The Environmental Protection Agency offers mandatory certification for insulation workers who remove and handle asbestos.

Other qualifications. For entry-level jobs, insulation contractors prefer to hire workers who are in good physical condition and licensed to drive. Applicants seeking apprenticeship positions are advised to have a high school diploma or its equivalent and be at least 18 years old. Supervisors and contractors, especially, need good communication skills to deal with clients and subcontractors.

Certification and advancement. Voluntary certification programs have been developed by insulation contractor organizations to help workers prove their skills and knowledge of residential and industrial insulation. The National Insulation Association also offers a certification in performing an energy appraisal to determine if and how insulation can benefit industrial customers.

Skilled insulation workers may advance to supervisor, shop superintendent, or insulation contract estimator, or they may set up their own insulation business.

For those who would like to advance, it is increasingly important to be able to relay instructions and safety precautions to workers in both English and Spanish because Spanish-speaking workers make up a large part of the construction workforce in many areas.

Job Outlook

Insulation workers should have excellent opportunities due to faster than average job growth, coupled with the need to replace many workers who leave this occupation.

Employment change. Employment of insulation workers is expected to increase 17 percent during the 2008-18 decade, faster than the average for all occupations. Demand for insulation workers will be spurred by the need to make existing buildings more energy efficient, as well as to the anticipated construction of new power plants-a big user of piping and equipment. Modest increases in the housing stock over the decade will also generate jobs for insulation workers.

Job prospects. Job opportunities for insulation workers are expected to be excellent. In addition to opportunities created by growth, job openings will arise from the need to replace workers who retire or leave the labor force for other reasons. The irritating nature of many insulation materials, combined with the often difficult working conditions, causes many insulation workers to leave the occupation each year.

Insulation workers in the construction industry may experience periods of unemployment because of the short duration of many construction projects and the cyclical nature of construction activity. However, as the occupation focuses more and more on weatherization, energy efficiency, and green house gas reduction, the occupation should become more protected against such cyclical ups and downs in construction overall. Workers employed to perform industrial plant maintenance generally have more stable employment because maintenance and repair must be done continually.