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Water and Sewage Treatment Plant Operators

Clean water is essential for many things: Health and recreation; the existence of fish and wildlife; and the functioning of industries. Water treatment plant operators treat water so that it is pure and safe to drink. Sewage or wastewater treatment plant operators remove harmful domestic and industrial pollution from sewage.

Water is pumped from rivers and streams to water treatment plants. Waste materials are carried by water through sewer pipes to sewage treatment plants. Operators in both types of plants control processes and equipment to remove solid materials, chemicals, and organisms from the water or render them harmless. By operating and maintaining the pumps, pipes, valves, and processing equipment of the treatment facility, operators move the water or sewage through the various treatment processes.

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 sewage and perform chemical and biological laboratory analyses; and test and adjust the level of chlorine in the sewage. 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. Occasionally operators must work under emergency conditions. A heavy rainstorm, for example, may cause an amount of sewage to flow into sewerpipes that exceeds a plant's treatment capacity. Emergencies also can be caused by conditions inside a plant, such as chlorine gas leaks or oxygen deficiencies.

The duties of operators vary depending 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. The operators even may handle both a water treatment and a sewage treatment plant. In larger plants, with many employees, operators may be assigned to one process or one station, and the staff may 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. To implement the law, a national system of uniform controls on the discharge of pollutants was set in motion. Under the 1972 law, as amended by the Clean Water Act of 1977, 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 insure that these wastes have been adequately pretreated so that they do not damage municipal treatment facilities. Municipal treatment plants must also meet discharge standards. In order to meet these requirements, operators will have to be able to operate more sophisticated systems.

Working Conditions

Water and sewage treatment plant operators work both indoors and outdoors and may be exposed to noise from machinery and unpleasant odors, although chlorine and other chemicals are used to minimize these. Persons with allergies might suffer due to dust and other substances in the air. Operators have to stoop, reach, and climb and often get their clothes dirty. Sometimes they are confronted with hazardous conditions, such as slippery walkways, dangerous gases, and malfunctioning equipment. Because plants operate around the clock, operators are required to work shifts and on weekends and holidays. During emergencies, overtime is common.


Water and sewage treatment plant operators held about 78,000 jobs in 1990. The vast majority worked for local governments; some worked for private water supply companies and chemical manufacturing companies. About 1,800 were employed by the Federal Government, mostly by the Armed Forces.

Water and sewage treatment plant operators are employed throughout the country. Geographically, employment is distributed much like the Nation's population, with most jobs in larger towns and cities. Many operators in small towns are employed part time or handle additional duties.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

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 do routine tasks such as recording meter readings; taking samples of sewage and sludge; and doing simple maintenance and repair work on pumps, electric motors, and valves. They also clean and maintain plant equipment and property. Larger treatment plants generally have more formal "in-house" training programs.

Operators need mechanical aptitude and should be competent in basic mathematics. Employers generally prefer trainees who have a high school diploma or its equivalent. In some States this is a minimum educational requirement. Some positions, particularly in larger cities and towns, are covered by civil service regulations, and applications may be required to pass written examinations testing elementary mathematics skills, mechanical aptitude, and general intelligence. Operators must be agile, since they have to climb ladders and move easily around heavy machinery.

Some 2-year programs leading to an associate degree in wastewater technology and 1-year programs lending to a certificate are available; these provide a good general knowledge of water pollution control 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, odors and their control, safety, chlorination, sedimentation, biological oxidation, sludge treatment and disposal, and flow measurements. Some operators take correspondence courses on subjects related to sewage treatment, and some employers pay part of the tuition for related college courses in science or engineering.

Operators may be promoted to plant supervisor or superintendent. A high school diploma and 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. 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 sewage treatment plants, companies selling sewage treatment equipment and chemicals, engineering consulting firms, or vocational-technical schools.

In 44 States, supervisors and certain operators must pass an examination to certify that they are capable of overseeing treatment plant operations. Voluntary certification programs are in effect in the remaining States. Typically, there are different classes of certification for different sizes of treatment plants.

Job Outlook

Employment of water and sewage treatment plants operators is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations the year 2000. As new plants are constructed to meet demand, employment of water and wastewater treatment plant operators should increase.

People who enter this field generally have steady employment because treatment of water is essential even during economic downturns.


According to a survey conducted by the water Pollution Control Federation, annual salaries of wastewater treatment plant operators averaged $22,200 in 1990; salaries of supervisors averaged $28,300. Salaries depend, among other things, on the size of the plant, the complexity of the operator's job, and the operator's level of certification.

Related Occupations

Other workers whose main activity consists of operating a system of machinery to process or produce materials include boiler operators, gas-compressor operators, powerplant operators, power reactor operators, stationary engineers, turbine operators, and waterworks pump-station operators.

Sources of Additional Information

For further information on training, contact:

National Environmental Training Association, 158 S. Napoleon St., P.O. Box 346, Valparaiso, Ind. 46383.

For information on certification, contact:

Association of Boards of Certification, 520 Grant Ave., Ames, Iowa 50010.

Additional information is available from:

Water Pollution Control Federation, 2626 Pennsylvania Ave. NW., Washington, D.C. 20037.

For information on jobs, contact State or local water pollution control agencies or local offices of the State employment service.


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