Attitude of Excellence

Health and safety improvements allow the Fort Knox treatment plant to achieve coveted Star status in Kentucky’s Voluntary Protection Program.
Attitude of Excellence
The Fort Knox team includes, from left, Eugene Robillard, field technician; David Miller, electrician; David Evans, GIS technician; Marc Montgomery, operator; Anthony Link, project manager; Bobby VanMeter, field technician; Kenneth Horn, operator; Justin Metz, operations supervisor/safety coordinator; Jeffrey Kinder, operator; David Russelburg, field lead technician; William Mills and Chad Saunders, field technicians; Kenneth Morley, collections supervisor; Melody Martel, administrative assistan

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To Justin Metz, something in Fort Knox is more valuable than the material stored in the United States Bullion Depository nearby. That’s the safety of his team at the Fort Knox (Ky.) Wastewater Treatment Plant.

In October 2012, the plant was awarded Star status under the state’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP). Although the VPP has been around since the early 1980s, only three other wastewater treatment facilities in the U.S. have won Star status, and Fort Knox was the first in Kentucky to do so.

“The VPP was not easy to achieve, and in fact it took us three years of hard work,” says Metz, operations supervisor and safety coordinator for the plant, owned by the Hardin County Water District No. 1 and operated by Veolia Water North America. “It’s not a one-time award, but an ongoing partnership. It requires high employee involvement, so everyone has to be rowing the boat in the same direction.”

The Kentucky VPP is offered by the state Division of Education and Training to recognize and promote exemplary safety and health performance. Participants must meet rigorous qualifying criteria and undergo an extensive on-site evaluation to be certified. That includes an in-depth work site hazard analysis, detailed records review, and employee safety and prevention program and training.

“The motivator for signing on to the program and achieving Star status was to go above and beyond our normal health and safety program, and to run the best facility we can,” says Metz. “The program resulted in a culture and mindset change in how we handle operations across the board. We upped the ante on our expectations as a plant.”

Metz describes the plant’s culture change as “remarkable,” as employees develop an “attitude of excellence” that affects all parts of the operation: process control changes, reduced energy consumption, and collection system improvements that cut back on inflow and infiltration.

On base

Built in 1995, the treatment plant is located at the Fort Knox Army Base. In 2005, the U.S. Army turned over plant ownership and operation to Hardin County Water District No. 1, based in Radcliff, through a privatization contract signed in 2004. Veolia Water operates the plant under a 20-year agreement. The system includes the 6 mgd treatment plant, 91 miles of sewer lines, and 39 lift stations. The plant serves the city’s 29,000 residents along with portions of the Army base.

The activated sludge oxidation ditch plant consists of:

  • Bar screens (Vulcan Industries)
  • Influent wet well pumps (Flygt and ABS)
  • Belt presses (Ovivo)
  • TrojanUV3000Plus disinfection system (TrojanUV)
  • Oxidation ditch aeration rotors (Lakeside Equipment Corp.)
  • SCADA system (Rockwell Automation)
  • Refrigerated samplers (Teledyne Isco 4700)

The UV system was installed in 2006, replacing chemical disinfection. The SCADA, added in 2007, replaced analog instruments. Collection system improvements reduced inflow and infiltration, and include:

  • Lift station replacement (2012)
  • Manhole rehabilitation (2006-2009)
  • Cured-in-place pipe lining
  • Sewer line repair and replacement (2012)

The yearly average flow is 1.8 mgd. “The plant was designed to support a full Fort Knox military mobilization effort, so we have an oversized plant for the amount of flow we normally receive,” Metz says. “We have to use different process control strategies to optimize our wastewater treatment.”

The abnormally high detention times in the plant’s oxidation ditch and clarifiers mean the operators have to maintain a low mixed liquor suspended solids concentration to keep from harboring significantly older sludge. “The challenge lies in having the mixed liquor at an age where the sludge is kept as young as possible, yet old enough to adequately remove BOD and ammonia,” Metz says.

Award-winning team

Besides the VPP award, the operations team has won an Operational Excellence Award from the Kentucky-Tennessee Water Environment Association for 2008-2011 for having no more than one NPDES permit violation per calendar year. The Fort Knox plant has had no violations in the past five years.

The operators take pride in their jobs and are a multi-talented group, making process control changes, maintaining operational computer databases, performing lab work, turning wrenches, changing oil and performing housekeeping. Metz holds a Class IV (highest) wastewater license and a bachelor’s degree in biology from Indiana University; he has been with the plant for seven years. Other team members are:

  • Project manager Anthony Link, Class IV, 7 years
  • Operators Marc Montgomery, Class IV, 7 years; Jeffrey Kinder, Class III, 4 years; Kenny Horn, Class IV, 3 years; Del Bradley, Class III, 2 years
  • Collection system supervisor Kenny Morley, 1 year
  • Administrative assistant Melody Martel, 1 year
  • Electrician David Miller, 2 years
  • GIS technician David Evans, 1 year
  • Field technicians David Russelburg, Class IV, 7 years; Chad Saunders, Class III, 4 years; Mike Shanahan, Class III, 6 years; Bobby VanMeter, 2 years; Gene Robillard, 1 year; Bill Mills, 1 year

Operators perform process control laboratory tests for dissolved oxygen, pH and residual chlorine. They also handle preventive and corrective maintenance and perform grounds work, such as lawn mowing and concrete pressure washing.

Veolia Water pays for traveling expenses and registration fees and allows work schedule modifications so that employees can earn and maintain certifications. The company also pays for memberships in the Kentucky Water & Wastewater Operators Association.

Team members receive training during monthly safety meetings on topics such as confined spaces, hazard communication, electrical safety and personal protective equipment. They also receive outside training.

Reaching for the Star

Metz heard about the Voluntary Protection Program in 2007 from a Veolia Water project in Atlanta, Ga. “I did some research on the Kentucky VPP website and spoke with a few people familiar with VPP,” he says. “I could foresee the benefits of going through the program. I talked the VPP up to my staff, and told them it was the benchmark for a health and safety program. I presented it as a challenge for them to work toward.”

Project manager Link committed the resources for the program and led by example, taking part in every safety meeting and conducting monthly inspections. He also did job observations, watching team members perform tasks and making sure they followed safety policies and procedures. The water district supported the effort by funding necessary improvements and standing behind Veolia Water in pursuing the goal.

Monthly safety meetings allowed the staff to discuss the status of VPP goals. Acceptance requires a two-phase review. Phase I is a forensic review of plant policies, procedures, record keeping, training and culture analysis. Phase II is an extensive hazard analysis.

“During our three-year effort to get into the program, Kentucky VPP auditors visited our site about 10 times, sometimes for multiple days,” says Metz.

After the auditors pointed out deficiencies in the health and safety program, plant staff created a spreadsheet listing the issues, corrective actions, the person responsible, and completion dates. “This is where the attitude of excellence really showed up,” recalls Metz. “At regular meetings, I would review the spreadsheet with the staff, and they would volunteer to address issues they thought were within their capabilities.”

Regional safety manager Jay Ritchey facilitated necessary changes at the corporate level. Metz and Horn worked diligently to critique and revise site-specific elements of the health and safety program.

Correcting issues

While all 16 staff members were involved, the operators and collection system field technicians were responsible for correcting physical hazards the VPP audit team found. For example, the openings in the grating next to the gate valves were too wide. Horn measured and cut the angle steel, Kinder painted the steel with corrosion-resistant two-part epoxy paint, and Bradley mounted the newly fabricated toe boards by setting all the concrete anchors and bolting them in place.

The VPP auditors felt the existing slap gates, which prevented entry into the oxidation ditch rotor drive pits, were too low and could easily be stepped over. “Because of the existing hand rail design, we couldn’t simply raise the slap gates,” says Metz. “Kenny Horn designed and in-house fabricated extensions onto the slap gates to prevent the possibility of stepping over them.”

Collection system employees increased their involvement in the safety program, giving training presentations, writing new standard operating procedures, and making hazard prevention repairs. As a result of the VPP, administrative assistant Melody Martel manages the hazardous communication program, updating Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) and conducting MSDS training.

Keeping it fresh

Maintaining the culture change is an ongoing challenge. “The VPP forced us to make a change from ‘This is what we have to do,’ to ‘This is what we want to do,’ ” says Metz. “Now, the attitude is ‘Let’s do a safety analysis of this job before we get started.’ ”

The VPP team came to the plant and performed a cultural analysis by interviewing each team member. “They asked them what they do and how they do it, and they came back with the results,” says Metz. “It turns out the plant had an ‘immature culture climate.’

“Our employees were looking at things reactively instead of proactively,” says Metz. “The staff scored well enough to get into the program, but the VPP administrator will want to see higher culture analysis scores when he conducts the survey again in three years.” It took time, encouragement and diligence to change the culture: “You can’t throw something out there and expect it to stick. You have to keep at it constantly.”

Today, Metz says, “More employees are taking a leadership role during safety meetings. They are contin-ually making suggestions that make our jobs easier, more efficient and safer. The process of becoming a VPP work site was eye-opening. It made our entire team better and more educated.”

The greatest challenge now is to keep interest in the VPP fresh: “We can’t let the honeymoon wear off. It’s not a one-time award. You’re in for three years, and when the three years are up, the VPP team conducts an audit to see whether you’re still worthy.”


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