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Water and Wastewater Operators

2 and Their Roles


Our planet is shrouded in water, and yet 8 million children distribution/collection system is one thing; taking sam-
under the age of five will die this year from lack of safe ples, operating equipment, monitoring conditions, and
water. determining settings for chemical feed systems and high-
pressure pumps, along with performing laboratory tests
United Nations Environmental Program and recording the results in the plant daily operating log
is another.
2.1 WATER AND WASTEWATER It is, however, the non-typical functions, the diverse
functions, and the off-the-wall functions that cause us to
OPERATORS
describe operators as jacks-of-all-trades. For example, in
To begin our discussion of water and wastewater opera- addition to their normal, routine, daily operating duties,
tors, it is important that we point out a few significant operators may be called upon to make emergency repairs
factors. to systems (e.g., making a welding repair to a vital piece
of machinery to keep the plant or unit process on line),
• Employment as a water and wastewater operator perform material handling operations, make chemical
is concentrated in local government and private additions to process flow; respond to hazardous materials
water supply and sanitary services companies. emergencies, make confined space entries, perform site
• Postsecondary training is increasingly an asset landscaping duties, and carry out several other assorted
as the number of regulated contaminants grows functions. Remember, the plant operator’s job is to keep
and treatment unit processes become more the plant running and to make permit. Keeping the plant
complex. running, the flow flowing, and making permit — no matter
• Operators must pass examinations certifying what — requires not only talent but also the performance
that they are capable of overseeing various of a wide range of functions, many of which are not called
treatment processes. for in written job descriptions.1
• Operators have a relatively high incidence of
on-the-job (OTJ) injuries. 2.2 SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT
To properly operate a water treatment and distribution Based on our experience, we have found that most people
and/or a wastewater treatment and collection system usu- either have a preconceived notion as to what water and
ally requires a team of highly skilled personnel filling a wastewater operations are all about, or they have nary a
variety of job classifications. Typical positions include clue. On the one hand, we understand that clean water is
plant manager/plant superintendent, chief operator, lead essential for everyday life. Moreover, we have at least a
operator, operator, maintenance operator, distribution vague concept that water treatment plants and water oper-
and/or interceptor system technicians, assistant operators, ators treat water to make it safe for consumption. On the
laboratory professionals, and clerical personnel, to list just other hand, when it comes to wastewater treatment and
a few. system operations, many of us have an ingrained image
Beyond the distinct job classification titles, over the of a sewer system managed and run by a bunch of sewer
years those operating water and wastewater plants have rats. Others give wastewater and its treatment and the folks
been called by a variety of titles. These include water who treat it no thought at all (that is, unless they are irate
jockey, practitioner of water, purveyor of water, sewer rat, ratepayers upset at the cost of wastewater service).
or just plain water or wastewater operator. Based on our Typically, the average person has other misconcep-
experience we have come up with a title that perhaps more tions about water and wastewater operations. For example,
closely characterizes what the water and wastewater oper- very few people can identify the exact source supply of
ator really is: a jack-of-all-trades. This characterization their drinking water. Is it pumped from wells, rivers, or
seems only fitting when you take into account the knowl- streams to water treatment plants? Similarly, where is it
edge and skills required of operators to properly perform treated and distributed to customers? The average person
their assigned duties. Moreover, operating the plant or is clueless as to the ultimate fate of wastewater. Once the

© 2003 by CRC Press LLC


toilet is flushed, it is out of sight out of mind and that is Typical examples of the computer-literate operator’s
that. work (for illustrative purposes only) are provided as
Beyond the few functions we have pointed out up to follows:2
this point, what exactly is it those water and wastewater
operators, the 90,000+ jacks-of-all-trades in the U.S. do? • Monitors, adjusts, starts, and stops automated
Operators in both water and wastewater treatment systems water treatment processes and emergency
control unit processes and equipment to remove or destroy response systems to maintain a safe and efficient
harmful materials, chemical compounds, and microorgan- water treatment operation; monitors treatment
isms from the water. They also control pumps, valves, and plant processing equipment and systems to
identify malfunctions and their probable cause
other processing equipment (including a wide array of
following prescribed procedures; places equip-
computerized systems) to convey the water or wastewater
ment in or out of service or redirects processes
through the various treatment processes (unit processes),
around failed equipment; following prescribed
and dispose (or reuse) of the removed solids (waste mate-
procedures monitors and starts process related
rials: sludge or biosolids). Operators also read, interpret, equipment, such as boilers, to maintain process
and adjust meters and gauges to make sure plant equip- and permit objectives; refers difficult equip-
ment and processes are working properly. They operate ment maintenance problems and malfunctions
chemical-feeding devices, take samples of the water or to supervisor; monitors the system through a
wastewater, perform chemical and biological laboratory process integrated control terminal or remote
analyses, and adjust the amount of chemicals, such as station terminal to assure control devices are
chlorine, in the water and wastestream. They use a variety making proper treatment adjustments; operates
of instruments to sample and measure water quality, and the central control terminal keyboard to perform
common hand and power tools to make repairs and adjust- backup adjustments to such treatment processes
ments. Operators also make minor repairs to valves, as influent and effluent pumping, chemical feed,
pumps, basic electrical equipment and other equipment. sedimentation, and disinfection; monitors spe-
(Electrical work should only be accomplished by qualified cific treatment processes and security systems
personnel.) at assigned remote plant stations; observes and
As mentioned, water and wastewater system operators reviews terminal screen display of graphs,
increasingly rely on computers to help monitor equipment, grids, charts and digital readouts to determine
store sampling results, make process-control decisions, process efficiency; responds to visual and audible
schedule and record maintenance activities, and produce alarms and indicators that indicate deviations
reports. Computer-operated automatic sampling devices from normal treatment processes and chemical
hazards; identifies false alarms and other indi-
are beginning to gain widespread acceptance and use in
cators that do not require immediate response;
both industries, especially at the larger facilities. When a
alerts remote control locations to respond to
system malfunction occurs, operators may use system
alarms indicating trouble in that area; performs
computers to determine the cause and the solution to the
alarm investigations.
problem.
• Switches over to semiautomatic or manual con-
trol when the computer control system is not
2.2.1 THE COMPUTER-LITERATE JACK properly controlling the treatment process; off-
scans a malfunctioning field sensor point and
At many modern water and wastewater treatment plants
inserts data obtained from field in order to
operators are required to perform skilled treatment plant
maintain computer control; controls automated
operations work and to monitor, operate, adjust and regulate mechanical and electrical treatment processes
a computer-based treatment process. In addition, the opera- through the computer keyboard when computer
tor is also required to operate and monitor electrical, programs have failed; performs field tours to
mechanical, and electronic processing and security equip- take readings when problems cannot be cor-
ment through central and remote terminal locations in a rected through the computer keyboard; makes
solids processing, water purification or wastewater treatment regular field tours of the plant to observe physical
plant. In those treatment facilities that are not completely or conditions; manually controls processes when
partially automated, computer-controlled computers are necessary.
used in other applications, such as in clerical applications • Determines and changes the amount of chemicals
and in a computer maintenance management system to be added for the amount of water, waste-
(CMMS). The operator must be qualified to operate and water, or biosolids to be treated; takes periodic
navigate such computer systems. samples of treated residuals, biosolids processing

© 2003 by CRC Press LLC


products and by-products, clean water, or amounts of liquid waste flow into sewers, exceeding a
wastewater for laboratory analysis; receives, plant’s treatment capacity. Emergencies can also be caused
stores, handles and applies chemicals and other by conditions inside a plant, such as oxygen deficiency
supplies needed for operation of assigned sta- within a confined space or exposure to toxic and/or explo-
tion; maintains inventory records of suppliers sive off-gases such as hydrogen sulfide and methane. To
on hand and quantities used; prepares and sub- handle these conditions, operators are trained to make an
mits daily shift operational reports; records emergency management response and use special safety
daily activities in plant operation log, computer equipment and procedures to protect co-workers, public
database or from a computer terminal; changes health, the facility, and the environment. During emergen-
chemical feed tanks, chlorine cylinders, and cies, operators may work under extreme pressure to correct
feed systems; flushes clogged feed and sam- problems as quickly as possible. These periods may create
pling lines. dangerous working conditions; operators must be
• Notes any malfunctioning equipment; makes extremely careful and cautious.
minor adjustments when required; reports Operators who must aggressively respond to hazard-
major malfunctions to higher-level operator and ous chemical leaks or spills (e.g., enter a chlorine gas filled
enters maintenance and related task information room and install chlorine repair kit B on a damaged 1-ton
into a CMMS and processes work requests for cylinder to stop the leak) must possess a Hazardous Mate-
skilled maintenance personnel. rials (HAZMAT) emergency response technician 24-hour
• Performs routine mechanical maintenance such certification. Additionally, many facilities, where elemen-
as packing valves, adjusting belts, and replacing tal chlorine is used for disinfection, odor control, or other
shear pins and air filters; lubricates equipment process applications, require operators to possess an
by applying grease and adding oil; changes and appropriate certified pesticide applicator training comple-
cleans strainers; drains condensate from pres- tion certificate. Because of OSHA’s specific confined
sure vessels, gearboxes, and drip traps; performs space requirement whereby a standby rescue team for
minor electrical maintenance such as replacing entrants must be available, many plants require operators
bulbs and resetting low voltage circuit switches; to hold and maintain cardiopulmonary resuscitation/first
prepares equipment for maintenance crews by aid certification.
unblocking pipelines, pumps, and isolating and
draining tanks; checks equipment as part of a Note: It is important to point out that many waste-
preventive and predictive maintenance program; water facilities have substituted elemental chlo-
reports more complex mechanical-electrical rine with sodium or calcium hypochlorite,
problems to supervisors. ozone, or ultraviolet irradiation because of the
• Responds, in a safe manner, to chlorine leaks stringent requirements of OSHA’s Process
and chemical spills in compliance with the Safety Management Standard (29 CFR
Occupational Safety and Health Admimistra- 1910.119) and the U.S. Environmental Protection
tion’s (OSHA) Hazardous Waste Operational Agency’s (EPA) Risk Management Program.
and Emergency Response (29 CFR 1910.120) This is not the case in most water treatment
requirements and with plant specific emergency operations. In water treatment systems, elemen-
response procedures; participates in chlorine tal chlorine is still employed because it provides
and other chemical emergency response drills. chlorine residual that is important in maintain-
• Prepares operational and maintenance reports ing safe drinking water supplies, especially
as required, including flow and treatment infor- throughout lengthy distribution systems.
mation; changes charts and maintains recording
equipment; utilizes system and other software 2.2.3 OPERATOR DUTIES, NUMBERS,
packages to generate reports and charts and AND WORKING CONDITIONS
graphs of flow and treatment status and trends;
maintains workplace housekeeping. The specific duties of plant operators depend on the type
and size of plant. In smaller plants, one operator may
2.2.2 PLANT OPERATORS AS EMERGENCY RESPONDERS control all machinery, perform sampling and lab analyses,
keep records, handle customer complaints, troubleshoot
As mentioned, occasionally operators must work under and make repairs, or perform routine maintenance. In
emergency conditions. Sometimes these emergency con- some locations, operators may handle both water treat-
ditions are operational and not necessarily life threatening. ment and wastewater treatment operations. In larger plants
A good example occurs during a rain event when there with many employees, operators may be more specialized
may be a temporary loss of electrical power and large and only monitor one unit process (e.g., a solids handling

© 2003 by CRC Press LLC


operator who operates and monitors an incinerator). Along or rotating shifts. Some overtime is occasionally required
with treatment operators, plant staffing may include envi- in emergencies.
ronmentalists, biologists, chemists, engineers, laboratory Over the years, statistical reports have related histor-
technicians, maintenance operators, supervisors, clerical ical evidence showing that the water and wastewater
help, and various assistants. industry is an extremely unsafe occupational field. This
In the U.S., notwithstanding a certain amount of less than stellar safety performance has continued to dete-
downsizing brought on by privatization activites, employ- riorate even in the age of the Occupational Safety and
ment opportunities for water and wastewater operators Health Act of 1970.
have increased in number. The number of operators has The question is why is the water and wastewater treat-
increased because of the ongoing construction of new ment industry’s OTJ injury rate so high? Several reasons
water and wastewater and solids handling facilities. In help to explain this high injury rate. First, all of the major
addition, operator jobs have increased because of water classifications or hazards exist at water and wastewater
pollution standards that have become increasingly more treatment plants (typical exception radioactivity):
stringent since adoption of two major federal environmental
regulations: The Clean Water Act of 1972 (and subsequent • Oxygen deficiency
amendments), which implemented a national system of • Physical injuries
regulation on the discharge of pollutants, and the Safe • Toxic gases and vapors
Drinking Water Act (SDWA) of 1974, which established • Infections
standards for drinking water. • Fire
Operators are often hired in industrial facilities to • Explosion
monitor or pretreat wastes before discharge to municipal • Electrocution
treatment plants. These wastes must meet certain mini-
mum standards to ensure that they have been adequately
Along with all the major classifications of hazards,
pretreated and will not damage municipal treatment facil-
other factors cause the high incidence of injury in the
ities. Municipal water treatment plants also must meet
water and wastewater industry. Some of these can be
stringent drinking water standards. This often means that
attributed to:
additional qualified staff members must be hired to monitor
and treat/remove specific contaminants. Complicating the
• Complex treatment systems
problem is the fact that the list of contaminants regulated
• Shift work
by these regulations has grown over time. For example,
the 1996 SDWA Amendments include standards for mon- • New employees
itoring Giardia and Cryptosporidium, two biological • Liberal workers’ compensation laws
organisms (protozoans) that cause health problems. Oper- • Absence of safety laws
ators must be familiar with the guidelines established by • Absence of safe work practices and safety
federal regulations and how they affect their plant. In programs
addition to federal regulations, operators must be aware
of any guidelines imposed by the state or locality in which Experience has shown that a lack of well-managed
the treatment process operates. safety programs and safe work practices are major factors
Another unique factor related to water and wastewater causing the water and wastewater industry’s high inci-
operators is their working conditions. Water and waste- dence of OTJ injuries.
water treatment plant operators work indoors and outdoors
in all kinds of weather. Operators’ work is physically 2.3 OPERATOR CERTIFICATION/LICENSURE
demanding and often is performed in unclean locations
(hence, the emanation of the descriptive but inappropriate A high school diploma or its equivalency usually is
title, sewer rat). They are exposed to slippery walkways; required as the entry-level credential to become a water or
vapors; odors; heat; dust; and noise from motors, pumps, wastewater treatment plant operator-in-training. Operators
engines, and generators. They work with hazardous chem- need mechanical aptitude and should be competent in basic
icals. In water and wastewater plants, operators may be mathematics, chemistry, and biology. They must have the
exposed to many bacterial and viral conditions. As men- ability to apply data to formulas of treatment requirements,
tioned, dangerous gases, such as methane and hydrogen flow levels, and concentration levels. Some basic familiar-
sulfide, could be present so they need to use proper safety ity with computers also is necessary because of the present
gear. trend toward computer-controlled equipment and more
Operators generally work a 5-day, 40-hour week. sophisticated instrumentation. Certain operator positions,
However, many treatment plants are in operation 24/7, and particularly in larger cities, are covered by civil service
operators may have to work nights, weekends, holidays, regulations. Applicants for these positions may be required

© 2003 by CRC Press LLC


to pass a written examination testing mathematics skills, state licensure examinations are provided by various state
mechanical aptitude, and general intelligence. and local agencies. Many employers provide tuition assis-
Because treatment operations are becoming more tance for formal college training.
complex, completion of an associate’s degree or 1-year Whether received from formal or informal sources,
certificate program in water quality and wastewater treat- training provided for or obtained by water and wastewater
ment technology is highly recommended. These creden-
operators must include coverage of very specific sub-
tials increase an applicant’s chances for both employment
and promotion. Advanced training programs are offered ject/topic areas. Though much of their training is similar
throughout the country. They provide a good general or the same, Tables 2.1 and 2.2 list many of the specific
through advanced training on water and wastewater treat- specialized topics waterworks and wastewater operators
ment processes, as well as basic preparation for becoming are expected to have a fundamental knowledge.
a licensed operator. They also offer a wide range of com-
puter training courses. Note: It is important to note that both water and
wastewater operators must have fundamental
New water and wastewater operators-in-training typ-
ically start out as attendants or assistants and learn the knowledge of basic science and math operations.
practical aspects of their job under the direction of an Note: For many water and wastewater operators,
experienced operator. They learn by observing, show-and-
crossover training or overlapping training is
tell, and doing routine tasks. These tasks can include
common practice.
recording meter readings; taking samples of liquid waste
and sludge; and performing simple maintenance and repair
work on pumps, electrical motors, valves, and other plant
or system equipment. Larger treatment plants generally TABLE 2.1
combine this OTJ training with formal classroom or self- Specialized Topics for Wastewater Operators
paced study programs. Some large sanitation districts Wastewater math Fecal coliform testing
operate their own 3- to 4-year apprenticeship schools. In Troubleshooting techniques Recordkeeping
some of these programs, each year of apprenticeship Preliminary treatment Flow measurement
school completed not only prepares the operator for the Sedimentation Sludge dewatering
next level of certification or licensure, but also satisfies a Ponds Drying beds
requirement for advancement to the next higher pay grade. Trickling filters Centrifuges
Rotating biological contactors Vacuum filtration
The SDWA Amendments of 1996, enforced by the Activated sludge Pressure filtration
EPA, specify national minimum standards for certification Chemical treatment Sludge incineration
(licensure) and recertification of operators of community Disinfection Land application of biosolids
and nontransient, noncommunity water systems. As a Solids thickening Laboratory procedures
result, operators must pass an examination to certify that Solids stabilization General safety
they are capable of overseeing water and wastewater treat-
ment operations. There are different levels of certification
depending on the operator’s experience and training.
Higher certification levels qualify the operator for a wider TABLE 2.2
variety of treatment processes. Certification requirements Specialized Topics for Waterworks Operators
vary by state and by size of treatment plants. Although Chemical addition Hydraulics — math
relocation may mean having to become certified in a new Chemical feeders Laboratory practices
location, many states accept other states’ certifications. Chemical feeders — math Measuring and control
In an attempt to ensure the currentness of training and Clarification Piping and valves
Coagulation — flocculation Public health
qualifications and to improve operators’ skills and knowl-
Corrosion control Pumps
edge, most state drinking water and water pollution con- Disinfection Recordkeeping
trol agencies offer on-going training courses. These Disinfection — math General science
courses cover principles of treatment processes and pro- Basic electricity and controls Electric motors
cess control methods, laboratory practices, maintenance Filtration Finances
procedures, management skills, collection system opera- Filtration — math Storage
tion, general safe work practices, chlorination procedures, Fluoridation Leak detection
sedimentation, biological treatment, sludge/biosolids Fluoridation — math Hydrants
treatment, biosolids land application and disposal, and General safe work practices Cross connection control and
backflow
flow measurements. Correspondence courses covering
Bacteriology Stream ecology
both water and wastewater operations and preparation for

© 2003 by CRC Press LLC


2.4 CHAPTER REVIEW QUESTIONS REFERENCES
AND PROBLEMS
1. Spellman, F.R., Safe Work Practices for Wastewater
Treatment Plants, 2nd ed., Technomic Publ., Lancaster,
2.1. Briefly explain the causal factors behind the PA, 2001, p. 2.
high incidence of OTJ injuries for water and 2. Job description and requirements taken from compilation
wastewater operators. of many requirements; many are from those described in
2.2. Why is computer literacy so important in [http://www.phila.gov/personnel/specs/7e45.htm]. Access-
operating a modern water and wastewater ed May 15, 2002.
treatment system?
2.3. Define CMMS.
2.4. List the necessary training requirement for
HAZMAT responders.
2.5. Specify the national minimum standard for
certification (licensure) and recertification for
water and wastewater operators.

© 2003 by CRC Press LLC