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Clean water is essential for many things: Health, recreation, fish and wildlife, and industry. Water treatment plant operators treat water so that it is safe to drink. Wastewater treatment plant operators remove harmful pollutants from domestic and industrial wastewater so that it is safe to return to the environment.
Water is pumped from wells, rivers, and streams to water treatment plants where it is treated and distributed to customers. Waste is collected from customers, carried by water through sewer pipes to wastewater treatment plants where it is treated and returned to streams, rivers, and oceans. Operators in both types of plants control processes and equipment to remove solid materials, chemical compounds, and micro-organisms from the water or to render them harmless. They also control pumps, valves, and other processing equipment to move the water or wastewater through the various treatment processes, and dispose of the waste materials removed from the water.
Operators read and interpret meters and gauges to make sure plant equipment and processes are working properly and adjust controls as needed. They operate chemical-feeding devices; take samples of the water or wastewater; perform chemical and biological laboratory analyses; and test and adjust the amount of chemicals such as chlorine in the water. Operators also make minor repairs to valves, pumps, and other equipment. They use gauges, wrenches, pliers, and other common handtools, as well as special tools.
Water and wastewater treatment plant operators increasingly rely on computers to help them monitor equipment, store sampling results, make process control decisions, and produce reports. When problems occur, operators may use their computers to determine the cause of and solution to the malfunction.
Occasionally operators must work under emergency conditions. A heavy rainstorm, for example, may cause large amounts of wastewater to flow into sewers, exceeding a plant's 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 in emergency management response using 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. These periods may create dangerous working conditions and 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 machinery, perform tests, keep records, handle complaints, and do repairs and maintenance. Some operators may handle both a water treatment and a wastewater treatment plant. In larger plants with many employees, operators may be more specialized and only monitor one process. The staff may also include chemists, engineers, laboratory technicians, mechanics, helpers, supervisors, and a superintendent.
Water pollution standards have become increasingly stringent since adoption of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972, which implemented a national system of regulation on the discharge of pollutants. Under the 1972 law and subsequent reauthorizations in 1977 and 1987, it is illegal to discharge any pollutant without a permit. Industrial facilities that send their wastes to municipal treatment plants must meet certain minimum standards and ensure that these wastes have been adequately pretreated so that they do not damage municipal treatment facilities. Municipal treatment plants also must meet stringent discharge standards set forth in the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. Operators must be familiar with the guidelines established by the Clean Water Act and how they affect their plant. In addition to Federal regulations, operators also must be aware of any guidelines imposed by the State or locality in which the plant operates.
Water and wastewater treatment plant operators work both indoors and outdoors and may be exposed to noise from machinery and some unpleasant odors, although chemicals may be used to minimize these. Operators have to stoop, reach, and climb and sometimes get their clothes dirty. They must pay close attention to safety procedures for they may be confronted with hazardous conditions, such as slippery walkways, dangerous gases, and malfunctioning equipment. Because plants operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, operators work one of three 8-hour shifts and on a rotational basis, weekends and holidays. Whenever emergencies arise, operators may be required to work overtime.
Water and wastewater treatment plant operators held about 95,000 jobs in 1994. The vast majority worked for local governments; some worked for private water supply and sanitary services companies, some of which provide operation and management services to local governments on a contract basis. About half worked as water treatment plant operators and half worked as wastewater treatment plant operators.
Water and wastewater treatment plant operators are employed throughout the country, with most jobs in larger towns and cities. Although nearly all work full time, those who work in small towns may only work part time at the water or wastewater treatment plantthe remainder of their time may be spent handling other municipal duties.
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 the processes and equipment in operation and by doing routine tasks such as recording meter readings; taking samples of wastewater and sludge; and doing simple maintenance and repair work on pumps, electric motors, and valves. They also clean and maintain plant equipment. Larger treatment plants generally combine this on-the-job training with formal classroom or self-paced study programs.
Operators need mechanical aptitude and should be competent in basic mathematics, as they need to apply data to formulas of treatment requirements, flow levels, and concentration levels. Because of the introduction of computer-controlled equipment and more sophisticated instrumentation, a high school diploma generally is required. In addition, employers prefer those who have had high school courses in chemistry, biology, and mathematics.
Some positions, particularly in larger cities and towns, are covered by civil service regulations, and applicants may be required to pass written examinations testing elementary mathematics skills, mechanical aptitude, and general intelligence.
Some 2-year programs leading to an associate degree in waste-water technology and 1-year programs leading to a certificate are available; these provide a good general knowledge of water treatment processes as well as basic preparation for becoming an operator. Because plants are becoming more complex, completion of such courses increases an applicant's chances for employment and promotion.
Most State water pollution control agencies offer training courses to improve operators' skills and knowledge. These 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 wastewater 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, while others advance by transferring to a larger facility. Some postsecondary training in water and wastewater treatment coupled with increasingly responsible experience as an operator may be sufficient to qualify for superintendent of a small plant, since at many small plants the superintendent also serves as an operator. However, educational requirements are rising as larger, more complex treatment plants are built to meet new 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 science degree. A few operators get jobs with State water pollution control agencies as technicians, who 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 wastewater treatment plants, companies selling wastewater treatment equipment and chemicals, engineering consulting firms, or vocational-technical schools.
In 49 States, operators must pass an examination to certify that they are capable of overseeing wastewater treatment plant operations. A voluntary certification program is in effect in the remaining State. Water plant operators must also be certified in most States. Typically, there are different levels of certification depending on the operator's 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.
There is no nationally mandated certification program for operators, and relocation may mean having to become certified in a new location. However, many States have begun accepting other States' certifications.
Those who wish to become water and wastewater treatment plant operators should have good opportunities through the year 2005. Despite low turnover and job growth that is expected to be slower than average, the number of applicants in this field is normally low, making for good job prospects for qualified applicants.
The increasing population and growth of the economy are expected to increase demand for water and wastewater treatment services. As new plants are constructed to meet this demand, employment of water and wastewater treatment plant operators should increase. In addition, some job openings will occur as experienced operators transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force.
Although local government is the largest employer of water and wastewater treatment plant operators, increased reliance on private firms specializing in the operation and management of water and wastewater treatment facilities should shift some employment demand to these companies. Increased pre-treatment activity by manufacturing firms should also create new job opportunities.
Water and wastewater treatment plant operators generally have steady employment because the services they provide are essential even during economic downturns.
Annual salaries of water and wastewater treatment plant operators averaged $27,100 in 1994; the lowest paid 10 percent of the occupation earned about $16,600, the middle 50 percent of the occupation earned between $22,300 and $35,200, and the top 10 percent earned about $42,100. Salaries depend, among other things, on the size and location of the plant, the complexity of the operator's job, and the operator's level of certification.
In addition to their annual salaries, water and wastewater treatment plant operators generally receive benefits that include health and life insurance, a retirement plan, and educational reimbursement for job-related courses.
Other workers whose main activity consists of operating a system of machinery to process or produce materials include boiler operators, gas-compressor operators, power plant operators, power reactor operators, stationary engineers, turbine operators, chemical plant operators, and petroleum refinery operators.
For information on certification, contact:
Association of Boards of Certification, 208 Fifth St., Suite 1A, Ames, IA 50010-6259.
For educational information on careers as a water treatment plant operator, contact:
American Waterworks Association, 6666 West Quincy Ave., Denver, CO 80235.
Water Environment Federation, 601 Wythe St., Alexandria, VA 22314.
For information on jobs, contact State or local water pollution control agencies, State water and waste water operator associations, State environmental training centers, or local offices of the State employment service.
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