Water/WastewaterTreatment Plant Operator

The Job and What's Involved

Water treatment plants collect water from the environment (e.g. lakes, rivers, reservoirs, groundwater and underground sources) and treat it to a quality that is safe for human consumption. The drinking water is then piped to customers.

Wastewater treatment plants receive piped wastewater and stormwater from houses and businesses and process the water to remove harmful substances before it is returned in a safe form to rivers and seas. The residual sludge is then disposed of in a variety of ways including:

  • Incineration
  • Anaerobic digestion (natural breakdown of organic materials into methane and carbon dioxide gas and fertiliser)
  • Burial in landfill sites
  • Agricultural land application

The duties of treatment plant operators vary, depending on the area in which they specialise, but may include some or all of the following:

  • Operating, monitoring and maintaining the wide range of plant and apparatus used in the treatment process.
  • Cleaning and disinfecting filters and screens for drinking water.
  • Cleaning, disinfecting and maintaining septic tanks, filters and screens for wastewater.
  • Adding chemicals to the water.
  • Monitoring water and gas levels.
  • Taking readings from hand-held meters, control panels or computer screens, checking water and wastewater samples, and keeping accurate records.
  • Carrying out general maintenance and repair work.
  • Interpreting results of sample analysis and making adjustments to equipment as necessary.
  • Finding technical faults by looking at data on computer screens or by looking directly at equipment.
  • Co-ordinating more complex repair work with engineers.
  • Monitoring stock levels of chemicals and reordering them when necessary.
  • Assessing risks and hazardous conditions.

Although much of the plant has become computer operated in recent years, the job can still be physically demanding. Duties may vary according to the size of the plant: in smaller plant the operator may be responsible for a whole range of processes, whereas in a large plant there will be more specialisation.

Treatment plant operators normally work as part of a team with a supervisor, senior technicians, water quality scientists, engineers and a manager.

Plant operators normally work 37 hours a week. It may be possible to work overtime. Part-time work is uncommon. Water and wastewater treatment works operate at all hours, every day, so shift work is often required. Some operators are required to join a call-out rota, which covers nights and weekends, but an allowance is often provided for this.

Operators may be based indoors, sometimes in control rooms, but they also may have to work outside in all weathers. Conditions at some of the plants can be smelly and wet, involving contact with unpleasant substances. Protective clothing is provided.

Some of the work is carried out in confined spaces or at heights, and some tasks involve using compressed air breathing apparatus. Extensive training is provided in such circumstances.

A trainee operator may earn around £11,000 a year. Experienced operators may earn £16,000 to £22,000 a year and Supervisors can earn £25,000 a year or more.

There may be additional payments for shift work, standby call-outs and overtime.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

The UK water industry employs around 166,000 people. In England, water and wastewater treatment plant operators are employed by the regional water and wastewater companies that may be water-only companies or combined water and sewage companies. Scotland has only one water authority and Northern Ireland has only one water authority where domestic customers do not have to pay water rates.

Operators work at water treatment works and sewage works. Many of the works are based near large towns and cities, but some are quite remote.

A list of the twenty-four water companies and their websites can be found on the Water UK website. Water companies post job vacancies on their websites and jobs are also advertised in Jobcentre Plus offices and in local newspapers.

Education and Training

No formal minimum entry qualifications are laid down, although some companies ask for four or five GCSE's (A*-E), including maths, English and a science or technology subject. Employers also look for particular skills and interests that are relevant to the job, such as an interest in environmental issues and IT skills. Some companies may ask new operators to take a medical test.

The Diploma in engineering and the Diploma in environmental and land-based studies may be relevant for this type of work.

Some employers set a minimum entry age of 18 while others provide training for young people aged 16-18. It is possible to train through a Water Industry Apprenticeship.

Apprenticeships and Advanced Apprenticeships provide structured training with an employer. As an apprentice you must be paid at least £95 per week; you may well be paid more. A recent survey found that the average wage for apprentices was £170 a week. Your pay will depend on the sector in which you work, your age, the area where you live and the stage at which you have arrived in the Apprenticeship.

Entry to Employment (e2e) can help to prepare those who are not yet ready for an Apprenticeship. In addition, Young Apprenticeships may be available for 14- to 16-year-olds. More information is available from a Connexions personal adviser or at www.apprenticeships.org.uk.

There are different arrangements for Apprenticeships in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

For further information visit My World of Work www.myworldofwork.co.uk/modernapprenticeships, Careers Wales www.careerswales.com; and for Northern Ireland contact www.careersserviceni.com.

People with relevant work experience in areas such as site maintenance or machinery operation may be able to enter this type of work.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Treatment plant operators are trained mainly on the job. Training is likely to involve shadowing experienced colleagues and working under close supervision while learning the set procedures. In addition, there may be some formal in-house training and/or training at a local college.

Subjects covered include:

- Water technology and supply
- Sampling and testing
- Use of chemicals
- Health and safety
- Emergency first aid

Employers may offer the opportunity to work towards awards relevant to the water industry, such as:

  • NVQ Level 2 in operating process plant (water/wastewater).
  • City & Guilds Level 2 Certificate in water engineering.
  • City & Guilds Level 2 Certificate/Diploma for water sector competent operator.

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You may use life saving skills as part of your day-to-day work.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

Water/wastewater treatment plant operators need to:

  • Be able to follow written and spoken instructions and diagrams.
  • Be able to follow health and safety regulations.
  • Be accurate and observant at all times.
  • Have good numeracy skills.
  • Be practical and comfortable using new technology, including computers.
  • Be able to solve problems.
  • Work well as part of a team and on their own initiative.
  • Have a good level of fitness and stamina.
  • Be willing to cope with unpleasant smells and substances.
  • Be prepared to work unsocial hours.
  • Have normal colour vision (in some cases).

Your Long Term Prospects

Experienced operators may be promoted to a supervisory or training position. They may gain further promotion to inspector, superintendent or treatment plant manager.

Alternatively, treatment plant operators may move into related areas within the industry, including engineering or treatment plant design.

Some operators undertake further qualifications such as a Higher National Diploma/Certificate (HND/C) or degree, which can allow them to progress to higher technical positions.

There may be opportunities for overseas work, particularly in developing countries.

Get Further Information

The Chartered Institution of
Water and Environmental Management
Tel: 020 7831 3110
Websites: www.ciwem.org
and www.environmentalcareers.org.uk

Diploma in Environmental and Land Based Studies
Website: www.diplomaelbs.co.uk

Energy & Utility Skills Limited
Tel: 0845 077 9922
Website: www.euskills.co.uk

Institute of Water
Tel: 0191 422 0088
Website: www.instituteofwater.org.uk

Water UK
Tel: 020 7344 1844
Website: www.water.org.uk

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