A water and liquid waste treatment plant and system operator could...

Help prevent food poisoning outbreaks by making sure crop irrigation water is bacteria-free. Add fluoride, a natural cavity-fighting element that strengthens teeth, to tap water.
Prevent water pollution by removing harmful chemicals from a factory's wastewater. Ensure water in a city is clean and safe so everyone can take a bath.
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Key Facts & Information

Overview Have you ever wondered what happens to that soapy water from your kitchen sink or laundry room washer, or the waste water from your bathroom? What about the water that factories discharge after making products? Or the water that runs off of roads and farmlands after a big storm? Water and liquid waste treatment plant and system operators run the amazing water treatment plants that remove pollutants and other harmful materials from waste water, so that it can be safely returned to the environment. These operators provide essential services that everyone in the community depends on every day to keep our water supply safe and clean.
Key Requirements Observant, with good problem-solving and mechanical skills, and excellent physical condition
Minimum Degree Associate's degree
Subjects to Study in High School Chemistry, biology, algebra, geometry, algebra II, English; if available, applied technology, computer science, environmental science
Median Salary
Water & Liquid Waste Treatment Plant & System Operator
U.S. Mean Annual Wage
Min Wage
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) Decline Slowly or Moderately (-3% to -9%)
Interview In this interview, you'll meet wastewater treatment plant operators Donnie Cagle and Melodie Hobbs, who enjoy the diversity of their work where, on any given day, they might repair a pump, change a valve in a hazardous confined space, install a flow meter and sampler, perform laboratory procedures, and solve process control problems; but they say the best part of their job is protecting the environment.
Related Occupations
  • Maintenance workers, machinery
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  • Textile bleaching and dyeing machine operators and tenders
  • Chemical plant and system operators
  • Gas plant operators
  • Petroleum pump system operators, refinery operators, and gaugers
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  • Pump operators, except wellhead pumpers
Source: O*Net

Training, Other Qualifications

Employers usually hire high school graduates who are trained on-the-job, and later become licensed. Education after high school improves job prospects.

Education and Training

A high school diploma usually is required for an individual to become a water or wastewater treatment plant operator. The completion of an associate degree or a 1-year certificate program in water quality and wastewater treatment technology increases an applicant's chances for employment and promotion because plants are becoming more complex. The majority of such programs are offered by trade associations, and can be found throughout the country. These programs provide a good general knowledge of water and wastewater treatment processes, as well as basic preparation for becoming an operator. In some cases, a degree or certificate program can be substituted for experience, allowing a worker to become licensed at a higher level more quickly.

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 wastewater 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.

Most state drinking water and water pollution control agencies offer courses to improve operators' 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 wastewater treatment, and some employers pay part of the tuition for related college courses in science or engineering.

Other Qualifications

Water and wastewater treatment plant operators need mechanical aptitude and the ability to solve problems intuitively. They should also be competent in basic mathematics, chemistry, and biology. They must have the ability to apply data to formulas that determine treatment requirements, flow levels, and concentration levels. Some basic familiarity with computers also is necessary, as operators generally use them to record data. Some plants also use computer-controlled equipment and instrumentation.

Watch this video to see how an industrial engineer, Ashley Benedict, works together with a systems engineer to make hospitals more efficient by improving their workflow.

Nature of the Work

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. Wastewater travels through customers' sewer pipes to wastewater treatment plants, where it is treated and either 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, chemicals, and microorganisms from the water. Operators also control pumps, valves, and other equipment that moves the water or wastewater 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 control chemical-feeding devices, take samples of the water or wastewater, perform chemical and biological laboratory analyses, and adjust the amounts of chemicals, such as chlorine, in the water. They employ a variety of instruments to sample and measure water quality, and they use common hand and power tools to make repairs to valves, pumps, and other equipment.

Water and wastewater 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. In some modern plants, operators also use computers to monitor automated systems and determine how to address problems.

Occasionally, operators must work during emergencies. 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 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 the plant. In smaller plants, one operator may control all of the machinery, perform tests, keep records, handle complaints, and perform repairs and maintenance. Operators in this type of plant may have to be on-call 24-hours-a-day in case of an emergency. In medium-sized plants, operators monitor the plant throughout the night by working in shifts. In large plants, operators may be more specialized and monitor only one process. They might work with chemists, engineers, laboratory technicians, mechanics, helpers, supervisors, and a superintendent.

Work Environment

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators work both indoors and outdoors and may be exposed to noise from machinery and to unpleasant odors. Operators' work is physically demanding and often is performed in unclean locations; they must pay close attention to safety procedures because of the presence of hazardous conditions, such as slippery walkways, dangerous gases, and malfunctioning equipment.

Plants operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In small plants, operators might work during the day and be on-call in the evening, nights, and weekends. Medium and large plants that require constant monitoring might employ workers in three 8-hour shifts. Because larger plants require constant monitoring, weekend and holiday work is generally required. Operators might be required to work overtime.

On the Job

  • Add chemicals such as ammonia, chlorine, or lime to disinfect and deodorize water and other liquids.
  • Operate and adjust controls on equipment to purify and clarify water, process or dispose of sewage, and generate power.
  • Inspect equipment or monitor operating conditions, meters, and gauges to determine load requirements and detect malfunctions.
  • Collect and test water and sewage samples, using test equipment and color analysis standards.
  • Record operational data, personnel attendance, or meter and gauge readings on specified forms.
  • Maintain, repair, and lubricate equipment, using hand tools and power tools.
  • Clean and maintain tanks and filter beds, using hand tools and power tools.
  • Direct and coordinate plant workers engaged in routine operations and maintenance activities.

Source: BLS

Companies That Hire Water & Liquid Waste Treatment Plant & System Operators

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