Clean water is essential for everyday life. Water treatment plant and system operators treat water so that it is safe to drink. Liquid waste treatment plant and system operators, also known as wastewater treatment plant and system operators, remove harmful pollutants from domestic and industrial liquid waste so that it is safe to return to the environment.
Water is pumped from wells, rivers, streams, and reservoirs to water treatment plants, where it is treated and distributed to customers. Liquid waste travels through customersí sewer pipes to liquid waste treatment plants, where it is either treated and returned to streams, rivers, and oceans or reused for irrigation and landscaping. Operators in both types of plants control equipment and processes that remove or destroy harmful materials, chemical compounds, and microorganisms from the water. They also control pumps, valves, and other equipment that moves the water or liquid waste through the various treatment processes, after which they dispose of the removed waste materials.
Operators read, interpret, and adjust meters and gauges to make sure that plant equipment and processes are working properly. Operators operate chemical-feeding devices, take samples of the water or liquid waste, perform chemical and biological laboratory analyses, and adjust the amounts of chemicals, such as chlorine, in the water. They use a variety of instruments to sample and measure water quality and common hand and power tools to make repairs. Operators also make minor repairs to valves, pumps, and other equipment.
Water and liquid waste treatment plant and system operators increasingly rely on computers to help monitor equipment, store the results of sampling, make process-control decisions, schedule and record maintenance activities, and produce reports. When equipment malfunctions, operators also may use computers to determine the cause of the malfunction and seek its solution.
Occasionally, operators must work during emergencies. A heavy rainstorm, for example, may cause large amounts of liquid waste to flow into sewers, exceeding a plantís treatment capacity. Emergencies also can be caused by conditions inside a plant, such as chlorine gas leaks or oxygen deficiencies. To handle these conditions, operators are trained to make an emergency management response and use special safety equipment and procedures to protect public health and the facility. During these periods, operators may work under extreme pressure to correct problems as quickly as possible. Because working conditions may be dangerous, operators must be extremely cautious.
The specific duties of plant operators depend on the type and size of plant. In smaller plants, one operator may control all of the machinery, perform tests, keep records, handle complaints, and perform repairs and maintenance. A few operators may handle both a water treatment and a liquid waste treatment plant. In larger plants with many employees, operators may be more specialized and monitor only one process. The staff also may include chemists, engineers, laboratory technicians, mechanics, helpers, supervisors, and a superintendent.
Water pollution standards have become increasingly stringent since the adoption of two major Federal environmental statutes: the Clean Water Act of 1972, which implemented a national system of regulation on the discharge of pollutants; and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, which established standards for drinking water. Industrial facilities sending their wastes to municipal treatment plants must meet certain minimum standards to ensure that the wastes have been adequately pretreated and will not damage municipal treatment facilities. Municipal water treatment plants also must meet stringent drinking water standards. The list of contaminants regulated by these statutes has grown over time. As a result, plant operators must be familiar with the guidelines established by Federal regulations and how they affect their plant. In addition to knowing and understanding the Federal regulations, operators must be aware of any guidelines imposed by the State or locality in which the plant operates.
Water and liquid waste treatment plant and system operators work both indoors and outdoors and may be exposed to noise from machinery and to unpleasant odors. Operatorsí work is physically demanding and often is performed in unclean locations. Operators must pay close attention to safety procedures, due to the presence of hazardous conditions, such as slippery walkways, dangerous gases, and malfunctioning equipment. Plants operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; therefore, operators work one of three 8-hour shifts, including weekends and holidays, on a rotational basis. Operators may be required to work overtime.
Water and liquid waste treatment plant and system operators held about 99,000 jobs in 2002. About 3 in 4 operators worked for local governments. Others worked primarily for private water, sewage, and other systems utilities, and for private waste treatment and disposal companies. Private firms are increasingly providing operation and management services to local governments on a contract basis.
Water and liquid waste treatment plant and system operators were employed throughout the country, but most jobs were in larger towns and cities. Although nearly all operators worked full time, those in small towns may work only part time at the treatment plant, with the remainder of their time spent handling other municipal duties.
A high school diploma usually is required for an individual to become a water or liquid waste treatment plant operator. Operators need mechanical aptitude and should be competent in basic mathematics, chemistry, and biology. They must have the ability to apply data to formulas prescribing treatment requirements, flow levels, and concentration levels. Some basic familiarity with computers also is necessary because of the trend toward computer-controlled equipment and more sophisticated instrumentation. Certain positionsparticularly in larger cities and townsare covered by civil service regulations. Applicants for these positions may be required to pass a written examination testing their mathematics skills, mechanical aptitude, and general intelligence.
The completion of an associate degree or a 1-year certificate program in water quality and liquid waste treatment technology increases an applicantís chances for employment and promotion because plants are becoming more complex. Offered throughout the country, these programs provide a good general knowledge of water and liquid waste treatment processes, as well as basic preparation for becoming an operator.
Trainees usually start as attendants or operators-in-training and learn their skills on the job under the direction of an experienced operator. They learn by observing and doing routine tasks such as recording meter readings, taking samples of liquid waste and sludge, and performing simple maintenance and repair work on pumps, electric motors, valves, and other plant equipment. Larger treatment plants generally combine this on-the-job training with formal classroom or self-paced study programs.
The Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1996, enforced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, specify national minimum standards for certification and recertification of operators of community and nontransient, noncommunity water systems. As a result, operators must pass an examination to certify that they are capable of overseeing liquid waste treatment plant operations. There are different levels of certification, depending on the operatorís experience and training. Higher certification levels qualify the operator for a wider variety of treatment processes. Certification requirements vary by State and by size of treatment plants. Although relocation may mean having to become certified in a new jurisdiction, many States accept other Statesí certifications.
Most State drinking water and water pollution control agencies offer courses to improve operatorsí skills and knowledge. The courses cover principles of treatment processes and process control, laboratory procedures, maintenance, management skills, collection systems, safety, chlorination, sedimentation, biological treatment, sludge treatment and disposal, and flow measurements. Some operators take correspondence courses on subjects related to water and liquid waste treatment, and some employers pay part of the tuition for related college courses in science or engineering.
As operators are promoted, they become responsible for more complex treatment processes. Some operators are promoted to plant supervisor or superintendent; others advance by transferring to a larger facility. Postsecondary training in water and liquid waste treatment, coupled with increasingly responsible experience as an operator, may be sufficient to qualify a worker for becoming superintendent of a small plant, where a superintendent also serves as an operator. However, educational requirements are rising as larger, more complex treatment plants are built to meet new drinking water and water pollution control standards. With each promotion, the operator must have greater knowledge of Federal, State, and local regulations. Superintendents of large plants generally need an engineering or a science degree.
A few operators get jobs as technicians with State drinking water or water pollution control agencies. In that capacity, they monitor and provide technical assistance to plants throughout the State. Vocational-technical school or community college training generally is preferred for technician jobs. Experienced operators may transfer to related jobs with industrial liquid waste treatment plants, water or liquid waste treatment equipment and chemical companies, engineering consulting firms, or vocational-technical schools.
Employment of water and liquid waste treatment plant and system operators is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2012. Job prospects will be good for qualified individuals because the number of applicants in this field is normally low, due primarily to the unclean and physically demanding nature of the work.
The increasing population and growth of the economy are expected to boost demand for essential water and liquid waste treatment services. As new plants are constructed to meet this demand, employment of water and liquid waste treatment plant and system operators will increase. In addition, many job openings will occur as experienced operators leave the labor force or transfer to other occupations.
Local governments are the largest employers of water and liquid waste treatment plant and system operators. However, Federal certification requirements have increased utilitiesí reliance on private firms specializing in the operation and management of water and liquid waste treatment facilities. As a result, employment in privately owned facilities will grow faster than the average.
Median annual earnings of water and liquid waste treatment plant and system operators were $33,390 in 2002. The middle 50 percent earned between $25,790 and $42,490. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $20,220, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $52,110. Median annual earnings of water and liquid waste treatment plant and systems operators in 2002 were $33,210 in local government and $32,190 in water, sewage, and other systems.
In addition to their annual salaries, water and liquid waste treatment plant and system operators usually receive benefits that may include health and life insurance, a retirement plan, and educational reimbursement for job-related courses.
For information on employment opportunities, contact State or local water pollution control agencies, State water and liquid waste operator associations, State environmental training centers, or local offices of the State employment service.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2004-05 Edition,
Water and Liquid Waste Treatment Plant and System Operators, on the Internet at
(visited July 09, 2004).