A Day in the Life of An Operator

Once again, our friends at SmallWaterSupply.org have found and shared an interesting insight into the “real world” of a water operator.  Originally published in the Kentucky Division of Compliance Assistance’s Operation Matters newsletter (produced by the state’s Operator Certification Program), this article provides an “operator’s eye view” of what a typical day looks like – and why the job is both interesting and important.

5:45 a.m.: Dawn is breaking, the birds are singing along the highway, and I’m on the road to work. I work 12-hour shifts three days a week and a half shift on Saturday. I enjoy this shift because it gives me more time with my family. Like most operators, I live in the same community served by my plant. It’s a short commute; I am protecting the lives of my friends and relatives, my children and my children’s friends and everyone else for miles around when I perform my treatment job. I’m proud of that. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to walk into work knowing that I’ll be doing something important and making an immediate difference in people’s lives every single day.

By 6 a.m., I’m chatting with the night shift operator, who’s getting ready to go home. He’s been here only a short time, but he is going to be a great employee. I wish I had taken some college courses when I was his age. He’s a graduate of an environmental science program with an associate’s degree, and that will open some doors for promotion for him in the future. When I started in this job years ago, no one had any college, and some people did not even have a high school diploma. Today, this is still one of the few careers a person can get into without college training – but a high school diploma is the minimum educational requirement, and at least a little college helps! We discuss the plant’s performance on his shift––flow trends down, pH trends up, and a pump that overheated, tripping a breaker. None of our operators are master mechanics, Ph.D. chemists or statisticians. But, we are all pretty good at performing chemical analyses, minor maintenance and troubleshooting and predicting how incoming or outgoing flow will change over the next day or two.

By 7 a.m., I’m making plant rounds:  walking past every basin and piece of equipment, using all five senses to evaluate plant operation. “Do the basins look unusually cloudy? Is that pump misaligned (It sure is making a racket when it runs.)? Hey, do I smell something burning? There’s an electrical short! That must be why the breaker tripped last night. I need to get that fixed right away.” The morning flies by with collecting samples, running some lab tests and checking chemical inventories. I have to work out the math to determine how much of each chemical we are using per day, and then decide when it is time to order more. Running out would force us to shut the plant down, which would create a public health emergency, a lot of bad media attention and violations and fines from state regulators. So in addition to other duties, I’m an inventory control specialist and a purchasing agent!

Our management and support staff have arrived by now. The plant manager looks over our power consumption and chemical costs for the month, so far, and we discuss the projected start date for our new construction project and how we are going to work around some of the issues involved. Our laboratory assistant begins running the bacteriological tests for the day. By lunch time, I’ve answered a dozen calls from city residents with questions, run three sets of laboratory tests, adjusted flows and responded to a couple of automated alarms for abnormal conditions. After lunch, I walk the plant again, meet a truck driver to unload an order of chemicals and work on a spreadsheet where I’ve started to track how much our effluent pH changes with every change in chemical dosage. If I can figure out the relationship, I can fine tune the amount of chemical used and improve quality, while possibly saving some money.

Late in the afternoon, the workday is finished for everyone else, and I’m here alone in the quiet plant. It’s been a routine day––dirty water coming in and clean water going out. I’ve personally ensured the quality of a million gallons of water. I take this responsibility seriously, and the Commonwealth of Kentucky does too. Every shift operator in a plant our size is required to have a Class III certification. I’m pretty proud of passing that test because I struggled with the math, and if I had not gone to the state school, I would have never passed it on the first try!

I take a brief walk out along the treatment basins. There’s a pleasant breeze and the quiet rush of moving water. Some people have to go away on vacation to hear that sound. Not me. I have the best job I can imagine. I have interaction with people and time by myself, indoor work and outdoor work and something new or different every day. And, I never even knew this job existed when I was a young adult.

I fell into this job (no, not literally!) when I was looking for better-paying work in my twenties. Restaurant work and sales work just weren’t getting me anywhere. I have always been someone who wants to see immediate results from my work, and I did not feel like I was accomplishing anything by making sales calls that might or might not result in a sale months from now. When I heard that the city was hiring, it sounded like a stable job, and it paid more than I was making. I had absolutely no idea about how a treatment plant worked, but I read one of the Sacramento manuals as quickly as I could and had three weeks of on the job training before the employee I was replacing retired. After that, I depended on the more experienced employees and my supervisor for guidance. I did not work a shift by myself until three years had passed and I had enough experience to become a certified operator. By that time, I knew this was the career I wanted. I get to see that clean water flowing out every day and I can pat myself on the back and say, “Hey – I did that! Looks good, doesn’t it?”

Now I see my relief for the next shift driving up to the plant gates. I’ve been the captain of the ship for the past 12 hours, and now it’s time to hand the controls over to the night-shift operator. We kind of joke among ourselves: “What is invisible until it stops working?” We both know the answer––a treatment plant. Our job gets very little publicity or attention unless there is a major problem, but that’s okay. We’re not in this for media attention or personal glory.

As I drive home, I wonder if I would want my children to follow me into this profession. There are pros and cons. Pros include job stability (steady demand and you most likely won’t be reassigned to another city once you are hired) and the psychological reward of giving back to your community and the environment. The downside?  Well, you won’t get rich:  some smaller systems start employees out as low as $9-10 an hour. Gaining Class III or IV certification can bring an experienced operator up to the $20-30 an hour range in the larger cities. Overall, I think this job could be a good fit for a lot of young people, but most of them will never hear this career mentioned by any high school guidance counselor. My children have seen me come home covered in mud or soaking wet and heard the phone ring at 1 a.m. when I am called out for an emergency at the plant. They also know how much pride I take in the trust our community has placed in me and my coworkers. If any of my kids choose to work in a treatment plant, I’d be proud to work alongside them

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