Certification's Critical Role
Since New Jersey introduced the first operator certification program in 1918, virtually every state and province has followed suit. The premise behind certification is simple—without a well-trained, skilled operator workforce, the best designed and constructed facility cannot be operated effectively. In addition, mandatory certification, through disciplinary measures, allows the state to remove certification from individuals demonstrating negligence, and thus a risk to public health and the environment.
Many water professionals throughout North America recognized the need for uniform operator certification standards among the states and provinces during the 1950s and 1960s. The rate of adoption of new certification programs and upgrading of existing programs, especially during the 1960s, underscored the acceptance of certification and its underlying concepts. From 1960 to 1970, the number of mandatory certification programs nearly tripled.
Dwindling Budgets and Increasing Importance
As state and provincial budgets tighten during tough economic times, there is greater pressure to review existing programs to ensure that they meet their objectives and provide value to taxpayers. Quantifying the value of operator certification programs can be challenging, but a strong certification program is an essential component to protecting public health and the environment and ensuring the professionalism of those entrusted with systems too.
Sadly, experience has demonstrated just how important well-trained and certified operators are to public health. In his book, Safe Drinking Water, Steve Hrudey, Professor Emeritus, University of Alberta, and Elizabeth J. Hrudey, reviewed the failures that resulted in disease outbreaks in over 70 communities. They concluded that:
“Drinking water providers must accept that providing continuously safe drinking water to all consumers at all times is a daunting task. This scientifically and technologically challenging undertaking continues to grow in its sophistication. These are characteristics of a knowledge-based industry. No amount of . . . stringency in drinking water quality criteria will serve consumers better than having their drinking water providers well-trained. Governments who believe that the public is willing to sacrifice drinking water safety for modest cost savings will find that failures ultimately tied to such false economies are not viewed kindly by the public” (Hrudey 2004).
Likewise, in his final public inquiry report on the E. coli outbreak in Walkerton Ontario, which killed seven people, Justice Dennis O’Connor noted that Operator Certification, “is an essential component of a safe drinking water system” (O’Connor 2002).
O’Connor specifically referenced the importance of meeting or exceeding the Association of Boards of Certification (ABC) and EPA certification standards. At the same time, he recognized the importance for certification standards to change as the water and wastewater
water industry evolves. Complacency in the water industry—the attitude that “the water’s always been fine” can influence both operators and legislatures to the public’s detriment (Smith 1995).
Where the water industry has failed, the cost to the public can be substantial. In the two outbreaks where economic analysis was conducted, Walkerton, Ontario; and Milwaukee, WI, the cost to individuals and communities is staggering. In Walkerton, a small town of 5,000 people, the impact to the community was estimated at $64,000,000 (Cdn). In addition, tens of millions were spent by the province in assistance (Hrudey 2004).
Certification of operators is not an end on itself. Effective programs need to document how their requirements (education, training, experience, and exams) directly relate to the skills and knowledge required to be an operator and how this in turn protects the public. Collaboration with other programs can also provide benefit.
Jenny Chambers, President of ABC, says providing resources to certification programs and promoting the profession through certification are among the top priorities of the organization representing certifiers from an international perspective.
“ABC is committed to efforts of making certain those individuals who are on the front lines of our public health systems and environmental protection are qualified professionals upholding the highest ethical and professional standards,” she says. “This commitment includes our current efforts of working to provide national professional recognition for certified operators.”
Chambers says state and provincial certifiers, EPA representatives, trainers, and other stakeholders recently gathered for the group’s 24th Annual Conference and discussed the top issues of the industry, which included the crucial impact of certification.
“One theme was consistent throughout the week—due to budget shortfalls, certification programs are expected to do more with less, but their role in protecting the public’s health and safety through water and wastewater treatment has never been more important,” she says.
Chambers also shares some of ABC’s current initiatives, which include development of a document that could assist programs in performing external reviews as required by EPA under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
“We’re looking to certification programs for information on all areas of their program to develop a Best Practices document which will serve as a tool for state certification programs,” she says. She adds that while each program operates differently, the Best Practices can provide a starting point for programs to assess their programs and build upon other state’s successes.
Chambers says the criticality of certification is not to be underscored.
“Society relies on trained and certified people to ensure that public health and the environment is protected and our investments in infrastructure are being properly maintained and operated,” she says. “We assure that these people have the knowledge and abilities needed to perform these tasks.”
Essential to advancing the quality of water is ensuring the professionalism of those entrusted to protect water systems. Certification of water professionals is a critical component in protecting public health systems.
Author's Bio: The Association of Boards of Certification is a non-profit membership organization, which includes almost 100 certifying authorities representing more than 40 states, nine Canadian provinces, and several international programs.
HTMLOutput: Object reference not set to an instance of an object.
HTMLOutput: Object reference not set to an instance of an object.HTMLOutput: Object reference not set to an instance of an object.