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The Changing Workforce and Its Impact on Your Wastewater Treatment System

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We have all heard about the “Great Resignation” in the news and the significant numbers of people retiring or leaving the work force.

A Washington Post article, [i] stated that 4.3 million people of all ages left the workforce in August of 2021 alone – that’s almost 3% of the total workforce gone in one month. Per Axios, [ii] 3 million baby boomers retired early because of COVID pandemic. It is important to know the numbers and reasons why people are leaving the workforce, but it is even more critical to know how you are going to protect your organization when one of your workers retires or leaves for another job.Staff with Industrial Waster Treatment Equipment

Most companies have contingency plans to replace C-level and senior executives when they abruptly leave. However, not as many organizations have replacement plans in place when the people operating equipment suddenly quit. For decades, your wastewater treatment systems have been completely out of mind, not causing any crisis or concern. Wastewater has been continually treated, solids removed off site, chemicals delivered and consumed, and all the while your wastewater has been (generally) in compliance with discharge standards. In the background, the same personnel have been quietly keeping the legacy system operating.

Because the system has been operating in the background of your more visible revenue-generating objectives such as producing products, many things have been neglected. It is likely that that many of the monitors, meters, instruments, and automation (if they even existed) have failed, and the overall condition of your wastewater treatment system has deteriorated. Someone was probably told about it, and it was likely deemed there were no funds to fix it at the time. Maybe the original wastewater it was designed to treat has changed because your production process has changed, and the system has been retrofitted several times. So, your operator had done what every wastewater treatment operator does: they find a manual work around and improvised solutions.

This is not everyone’s situation, but it is the story of so many plants. Systems installed decades to half-centuries ago are not only in jeopardy of completely failing, but the men and women who have kept them running are largely part of the groups retiring early or quitting for a better job.

Let’s hope you do not lose your system operator. However, if you realistically think your system and workforce could be suffering from similar ailments described here, we have some cost-effective recommendations you can implement now to ensure workforce changes do not negatively impact your operation or bottom line.

System Audit

Have a firm focused on water treatment applications come in to review your system. Having a firm focused on water treatment applications evaluate your current system is a quick way to assess your situation. Ideally, they can identify critical aspects of the system that require immediate attention and those which can be addressed later. They should be able to evaluate the system as a whole to determine if it is cost effectively meeting your current – and future needs while also providing you with replacement options.

Controls and Advanced Automation Upgrade

Typically, upgrading system controls and automation provides return on investment and quickly limits exposure from workforce challenges. Replacement of broken instrumentation, installation of additional monitoring, and a new control panel with PLC controls can automate the treatment process, reducing the workload for your staff while ensuring the system is operating properly.  Notifications can alert employees to system upset conditions and provide maintenance reminders for things like filter changes, chemical replenishment, or solids removal.

Chemical Optimization

Many companies have not changed the makeup of their water treatment chemicals since the system was first installed. Over that time, your costs probably continued to rise, but you may have no idea if you are in line with market prices. Additionally, are you sure a more cost-effective chemical treatment protocol isn’t available? Has your wastewater changed from the original production line you ran? A short lab trial by a third-party can provide testing validation across multiple chemicals and provide a complete OPEX assessment for your consideration. Chemical costs truly add up, especially when many do not periodically evaluate the options.

Sludge Handling Automation

Additional flow or changes to the wastewater generating processes can impact the performance of your sludge handling equipment. Additional solids could mean your operator has to increase the number of times the filter press is dumped, pulling the operator from more critical tasks. Additional oil or solvents in the solids could negatively impact the performance of the filter press, increase the disposal weight of your solids, or possibly cause the solids to not be accepted at a normal landfill. As human resources become more scarce, automated sludge handling systems can offer a cost-effective solution to many of those problems.

Equipment Replacement v. System Replacement

Site audits are often performed when someone believes a new wastewater treatment system is required. This could be due to expansion, age/condition of current system, poor performance, or all the aforementioned conditions combined. A good site audit would include the determination of what equipment can be reused and which cannot. Additionally, lab and field testing can validate where a system may be failing. In many cases, companies can identify a single piece of equipment for replacement instead of scrapping the entire treatment train. Be sure to communicate with your provider so that you can have all the supporting data for all the options available to you.

Proper Documentation

Part of properly maintaining any pollution control device hinges on document control. The changing employment situation is magnifying the importance of keeping critical documents not only accessible but also updated. Documenting operating procedure can be the difference between compliance and non-compliance when a key person abruptly leaves an organization. Companies should take every step to maintain updated documents such as the Process and Instrumentation Diagram (P&ID), electrical schematics, sequence of operation, set points, and alarm conditions. Don’t find yourself searching for the company’s permit operating conditions when they should be stored in a centralized location with other critical documentation.

In conclusion, the GREAT RESIGNATION has significantly changed the work landscape and likely will continue to do so. One simple way to ensure you stay in compliance with standards, continue to be a good neighbor to your community, and stay cost-effective in production of your goods is to ensure your wastewater system and process is prepared for operator disruption.

At Anguil, our team of industrial wastewater treatment experts can help you optimize your wastewater system and process. To find out more, contact us today.

Want to learn more?

Listen to our team of experts in this podcast with EHS Daily Advisor.


[i] Washington Post. A record number of workers are quitting their jobs, empowered by new leverage. Oct. 12, 2021. Eli Rosenberg, Abha Bhattarai, and Andrew Van Dam

[ii] Axios. Millions of baby boomers retired early during the pandemic. Oct. 29, 2021. Erica Pandey, author of What’s Next