Havelock North water inquiry - A focus on training

Posted by Chris Laidlow - Chief Executive.September 4th 2017

Havelock North water inquiry - A focus on training

The New Zealand Government Enquiry into last year’s Campylobacter contamination of Havelock North’s water supply raised the issue of training several times.  This prompted Water New Zealand to submit a consultation paper on water treatment training and Operator Certification.  

Water New Zealand’s paper discusses proposed new certification requirements, including recognised tertiary qualifications and ongoing professional development. But is there more that water suppliers could do to train the people who are at the front line of delivering safe drinking water to their communities?  Before we consider this question, it is useful to look at the expectations placed on today’s treatment plant operators.

The work of a modern-day water plant operator is vastly different to when most of today’s Operators (at an average age of about 55) started their career. The increasing deployment of technology and formal management systems has broadened the scope of the operations role to such an extent that it is unrealistic to expect anyone to perform it adequately without specialised training.

In addition to the manual maintenance tasks a water treatment plant operator may have to carry out, there are a range of more specialised activities that are required to ensure drinking water quality compliance. For example, calibrating on-line water quality instruments, fault finding on electro mechanical equipment, monitoring performance trends and making adjustments to physical and chemical treatment processes, to name a few.

Further, the intricate interdependencies involved the water treatment process must be clearly understood, controlled, and optimised in real-time. Plant operators are also expected to be aware of their responsibilities (particularly how to respond when things go wrong) associated with several compliance related obligations, such as the Drinking Water Standards of New Zealand, resource consent conditions, the HSE Act and in-house Quality Management Systems.

So, is there more that we could we do to train operators? The answer, of course, is yes.

The New Zealand water and wastewater qualifications cover a wide range of topics on theory and practice and the proposed operator certification framework would incorporate the length and variety of an operators’ experience. Together, the national qualifications and operator certification provide a high level of confidence in an operators’ capability.

However, water treatment plants are not like cars. You can’t jump out of one treatment plant and into another and expect to know how to drive it, at least not without risk of crashing.

All treatment plants are unique, they will have distinct types of source water, different combinations of treatment processes, various control systems, unfamiliar equipment and so on. This means that an operator, regardless of qualifications or experience, will need time to learn how to operate any specific treatment plant. In most circumstances, this learning is unstructured, reliant on word of mouth from other operators, and not monitored.

In the UK, Anglian Water and United Utilities have introduced a Licence To Operate (LTO) framework for operational staff. This concept has recently been adopted by Matamata Piako District Council (MPDC) and is being implemented to good effect.

When MPDC carried out an internal review of operator training and competency assessment they identified the following issues that contributed to non-compliance events:

  • No records of staff competency with respect to operating specific plants;
  • Inconsistent practice between operators;
  • Lack of skills resilience in the event of resignation or illness;
  • No clear plan to train and on-board new staff;
  • Poor records of formal and informal operator training for specific plants;
  • Incomplete, missing or out of date operating manuals;

After introducing the LTO concept, MPDC Chief Executive Don McLeod noted; “One of the key benefits I saw in this style of training is that it trains all our operators to the same level and supplants the old style of on-boarding new operators whereby they were buddied up with an old hand and ‘shown the ropes”.

The outcomes sought through the LTO training include:

  • Evidence of competency
  • Operators making quicker and safer decisions
  • Improved production reliability
  • Reduced maintenance, power and chemical costs
  • Fewer compliance violations
  • Reduced damage to equipment
  • Elimination of errors that lead to non-compliance and plant shutdowns
  • Changing ingrained behaviours
  • Easy access to operating guidelines and training content via smartphones, tablets and PC’s

Implementing an LTO programme arms treatment plant operators with the knowledge and tools to not only optimise the performance of the plant, in terms of treated water quality, health and safety, environmental impact, and operating cost, but also to ensure the treatment plant is compliant and stays on-line.

In summary, the LTO concept fills the training gaps not covered by national qualifications and the proposed operator certification. It speeds up the learning curve for new operators and gives them the knowledge and confidence to make the right decisions at the right time.

Since Havelock North’s water contamination event, Hastings District council are following MPDC’s lead in implementing an LTO scheme.

To learn about Lutra’s LTO programme contact us here.