Water treatment plant and system operators work in water treatment plants. Fresh water is pumped from wells, rivers, streams, and reservoirs to water treatment plants, where it is treated and distributed to customers. They run the equipment, control the processes, and monitor the plants that treat water to make it safe to drink.
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Water treatment plant operators typically do the following:
It takes a lot of work to get water from natural sources—reservoirs, streams, and groundwater—into our taps. Similarly, it is a complicated process to convert the wastewater in our drains and sewers into a form that is safe to release into the environment.
The specific duties of plant operators depend on the type and size of the plant. In a small plant, one operator may be responsible for maintaining all of the systems. In large plants, multiple operators work the same shifts and are more specialized in their duties, often relying on computerized systems to help them monitor plant processes.
Occasionally, operators must work during emergencies. For example, weather conditions may cause large amounts of storm water or wastewater to flow into sewers, exceeding a plant’s capacity. Emergencies also may be caused by malfunctions within a plant, such as chemical leaks or oxygen deficiencies. Operators are trained in emergency management procedures and use safety equipment to protect their health, as well as that of the public.
Wastewater treatment plant and system operators do similar work to remove pollutants from domestic and industrial waste. Used water, also known as wastewater, travels through sewage pipes to treatment plants where it is treated and either returned to streams, rivers, and oceans, or used for irrigation.
Water treatment plant operators need long-term on-the-job training to become fully qualified. Trainees usually start as attendants or operators-in-training and learn their skills on the job under the direction of an experienced operator. The trainees learn by observing and doing routine tasks, such as recording meter readings, taking samples of wastewater and sludge, and doing simple maintenance and repair work on plant equipment. Larger treatment plants generally combine this on-the-job training with formal classroom or self-paced study programs. As plants get larger and more complicated, operators need more skills before they are allowed to work without supervision.
Water treatment plant operators must be licensed by the jurisdiction in which they work. Requirements and standards vary widely depending on the region. Licenses typically have four levels, which depend on the operator's experience and training. Although some jurisdictions will honour licenses from other jurisdictions, operators who move from one to another may need to take a new set of exams to become licensed in their new location.
Water treatment plant operators need a high school diploma or equivalent to become operators. Employers may prefer applicants who have completed a certificate or an associate’s degree program in water quality management or wastewater treatment technology, because the education minimizes the training a worker will need. Community colleges, technical schools, and trade associations offer these certificate or associate's degree programs.
Water treatment plant operators typically need related work experience to become operators. They often gain experience working as trainees or in other lower level positions in the plant.
Most water treatment plant operators work for local governments. Many others work for water, sewage, and other systems utilities and for waste treatment and disposal services. They work both indoors and outdoors. They may be exposed to noise from machinery and are often exposed to unpleasant odors.
Operators’ work is physically demanding and usually is performed in locations that are unclean or difficult to access. They must pay close attention to safety procedures because of hazardous conditions, such as slippery walkways, dangerous gases, and malfunctioning equipment. As a result, workers experience an occupational injury and illness rate that is much higher than the average for all occupations.
Plants operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In small plants, operators are likely to work during the day and be on call nights and weekends. In medium- and large-size plants that require constant monitoring, operators work in shifts to control the plant at all hours. Operators may be required to work overtime, weekends, or holidays.
The median annual wage of water treatment plant operators was $40,770 in May 2010. (The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less.) The lowest 10% earned less than $24,860, and the top 10% earned more than $63,680.