Our operators keep treating wastewater and protecting public health

Industrial Maintenance Mechanic

Like other critical government workers, wastewater workers can’t do their jobs from home, so they have adjusted many of their ways of working during this crisis in order to protect their own health – and yours.

King County Wastewater Treatment Division (WTD) treats wastewater from people and businesses to protect people’s health and the environment. We operate three regional treatment plants, two local treatment plants, and four wet weather treatment plants. In 2018, we treated an average of 175 million gallons of sewage every day.

Our operations staff (Ops) are as vital to the pandemic response as police and fire responders. They are on the front line of public safety and do their jobs 24/7.

Like other critical government workers, they can’t do their jobs from home, so they have adjusted many of their ways of working during this crisis in order to protect their own health and the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

We had a conversation with our treatment plant manager, Robert Waddle, about these changes:

Question: What are some of the things Ops staff are doing to practice social distancing?

RW: All staff are to maintain safe, six-foot distances when interacting with co-workers – and we’ve shifted how we work to make that easier.

For example: Usually, full night and day crews meet at shift changes to discuss plant operations, so that information is relayed to the oncoming crew. To reduce risks, now only the shift supervisors meet for this information exchange and those supervisors will maintain a distance of at least six feet from each other. The shift supervisor knows everything going on in his/her area. It’s also important to note that the oncoming operator can see where everything’s set on computer controls, so only anything out-of-the-usual needs to be passed on by the previous crew.

What about the mechanics, electricians, instrument techs and utility workers? Do they share tools that need to be disinfected between uses?

Our leads for those groups go through the work orders and distribute them – electronically if possible, and in person if needed – with a focus of maintaining that six-foot distance. All our mechanics and electricians have their own set of tools, so we don’t need to worry about cleaning between uses. They all have their own carts and vehicles. Not many of our pool vehicles are being used right now, but if they are, they are cleaned before and after use – and there’s no carpooling.

The laboratory staff are also critical in keeping a treatment plant running. Are they doing anything differently right now?

RW: By their nature, the labs are really clean. They have a higher personal protective equipment (PPE) requirement that most everything else normally. Everything in the lab is wiped down and disinfected constantly because, when working with sewage or treatment process samples, they can’t have cross-contamination.

Our Operators-in-training (OITs) need to learn from their coworkers. How are we handling their training?

RW: Again – six feet apart. They need to work with our fully-certified operators and other staff to learn hands-on, how to run a treatment plant.

More than ever, we need our OITs. We have to plan for a worst-case scenario where we would need to use them to run treatment plant processes under the direction of a fully certified operator.

What about things like disinfection, extra cleaning and hand washing?

RW: All the measures that are pervasive in society right now – we’re doing. Many of these things we’ve always been doing because we work in an environment that has bacteria and viruses. Our operations staff are trained in proper protocols and PPE. Wastewater operators have a common joke that we wash our hands BEFORE we go to the bathroom.

Like many other places, we’re doing extra cleaning. We have an early morning and afternoon disinfectant cleaning of all shared surfaces – including tables, desks, computer keyboards and mice, doorknobs, etc.  We are also in the process of contracting with a commercial cleaning company to come in and clean each of the regional treatment plants. The scope of this clean is significant with a weekly, comprehensive cleaning and disinfection of all shared/common areas in the plants.

The proof is in the results: I talk with my staff every morning at 7 a.m. and find out what our staff levels are for that day. The rate our staff calls in sick is really low right now. That tells me what we’re doing is working.

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