Most people's closest brush with waste water ends with a regular stop at the toilet, but for others, managing sewage is their life's work. Many people become sewage treatment plant operators after high school, while others earn associate degrees or certificates prior to working. Among other requirements, operators must understand applicable U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations to ensure compliance.
Wastewater plant operators much be able to “apply data to formulas that determine (water) treatment requirements, flow levels, and concentration levels,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates tap and wastewater, and plant operators must be educated on these regulations in order to ensure high standards. They also must keep records and other documentation that prove compliance with new requirements.
Plant operators work indoors and outdoors. They’re exposed to machinery noise and pungent odors and must constantly be on guard due to hazardous conditions like slippery walkways, harmful gases and malfunctioning equipment, according to the bureau. The job includes a higher-than-average injury rate.
Wastewater treatment plants run all day, every day, but the same isn’t true for their operators, who may work regular hours daily or may work shifts, and can be on call during the evening and on weekends, according to the department. Emergency situations call for more hours on the job. Storm water, for instance, can overflow sewers and exceed plant capacity. Chemical leaks and oxygen deficiencies are other concerns that require close attention.
High school graduates often are trained for this position, but prior schooling—such as completing certificate or associate degree programs—improves chances in a competitive job market that prefers providing less on-the-job training, according to the bureau.
Operators-in-training observe others and perform routine tasks like recording meter readings, taking wastewater samples and repairing pumps and valves. Licensure and certification are required, though mandates vary in each state, according to the bureau.
Plant operators comprised 113,400 jobs in 2008. About 78 percent worked for local governments, according to federal labor records.
Annual wages average at $38,430, according to federal labor records, which indicate that the middle 50 percent of earners make between $30,040 and $48,640, the lowest 10 percent make less than $23,710, and the highest 10 percent make more than $59,860.