This Wisconsin Lab Tech Has the Formula for Excellence

Jody Flannery’s dedication and insistence on perfect procedure have helped her community earn Laboratory of the Year recognition.
This Wisconsin Lab Tech Has the Formula for Excellence
The staff at the Rhinelander Wastewater Treatment Plant includes, from left, Jim Gossage, Joel Halminiak and Brad Vick, operators; Jody Flannery, lab technician; Josh Paetow, operator; and Tim Kingman, Public Works director.

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When auditor Brandy Baker-Munich of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) first saw the difficulties the city of Eagle River had with its wastewater treatment laboratory, she wasn’t sure how to help the technicians overcome their hurdles.

Then it occurred to her: she knew someone who could. She turned to Jody Flannery, laboratory technician for the nearby Northwoods city of Rhinelander. She advised Eagle River on ways to get its recurring BOD exceedances under control.  

Today, the DNR is using standard operating procedures (SOPs) and a quality control (QC) manual written by Flannery as examples of best practices in water and wastewater laboratories across the state. Flannery began writing the SOPs and QC manual when she was hired by Rhinelander, where she has worked for the past 11 years analyzing samples for the city’s 7 mgd (peak capacity) wastewater treatment facility as well as the water treatment plant.

Over the years, the DNR has noted Flannery’s dedication to quality control and attention to detail. That’s a big reason the department presented its 2017 Laboratory of the Year award to Rhinelander, a city of 7,500 people.

Lab turnaround

This marks the third time the lab has been nominated for the award, and Flannery appreciates the recognition. “While I strive for excellence at each angle from within the lab, I was pretty excited to hear we would be receiving this special award,” she says.

Baker-Munich nominated the lab after discovering zero deficiencies, rare quality-control exceedances, and outstanding commitment to producing high-quality data. “For me, this award is a testament to the quality of the resources that the people of Rhinelander have invested in, including the construction of this advanced wastewater treatment facility, upgrades to the water distribution system and an excellent staff,” says Flannery.

Flannery was doing exemplary work before the new plant was built in 2011. Before she became lab manager, Rhinelander had persistent issues with excessive or insufficient dissolved oxygen depletion in BOD blanks and recurring glucose-glutamic acid (GGA) exceedances. The GGA tests are recorded weekly as part of the BOD standards, and there is an acceptance criteria of 167.5 to 228.5 mg/L. The test is set up with seeded samples, which can be purchased in capsules through suppliers.

Upon starting the job, Flannery went to work documenting, problem-solving and rectifying the issues at the lab. As part of that process, she created the meticulous recordkeeping and quality assurance standards that earned the city its Laboratory of the Year recognition.

Reliable procedures

Working with Tim Kingman, Public Works director, Flannery wrote SOPs and a QC manual that have been lauded by DNR auditors. They use specific step-by-step instructions, and some requirements are repeated to make things easier on technicians, who don’t need to flip back and forth between sections for reference.

Such organizational skills and attention to detail are vital to producing high-quality lab data, according to Flannery. She created SOPs with detailed instructions for each test. “I also created a traceability logbook for each standard and reagent purchased, which includes the lot number, date of receipt, date it was opened, expiration date and discard date,” she says. “For each instrument and piece of support equipment used for lab analysis, I thoroughly document any maintenance or cleaning done.”

For years, the DNR has used Flannery’s SOPs and QC manual as an example for other laboratories. “The lab data produced is accurate, and additional work is done to prevent issues from occurring,” Baker-Munich wrote in her award nomination. “Jody’s organizational, management and laboratory skills are a great example for others.”

Flannery’s quality assurance program wasn’t developed to simply meet minimum requirements. “This laboratory has the support and professional knowledge to strive to do so much better,” writes Baker-Munich. “If a requirement is mandated only once or quarterly, the laboratory will complete them monthly or even daily as a preventive measure. This includes TSS redry tests, bottle cleaning confirmation and barometric pressure verification, among others.”

Helping hands

Meanwhile, Flannery has helped neighboring laboratories in more direct ways. For example, the lead laboratory analyst from the Eagle River Wastewater Treatment Plant retired, leaving behind very few details for other lab analysts to follow. During an audit at Eagle River, Baker-Munich recommended the lab staff call Flannery for help.

In short order, an Eagle River analyst toured the Rhinelander facility to see how its lab operates, taking note of the traceability resources it had available and learning from its procedures for nutrient and seed preparation for BODs. “It was much more valuable than trying to explain it during the audit,” writes Baker-Munich. “She had great tools in place and could help them.”

Eagle River was still using 50-capsule bottles of BOD seed, and since only one seed is used per weekly test, Flannery saw there was a high likelihood the seed was deteriorating. She recommended they purchase 10-capsule bottles to combat that issue. As part of the test, the capsule is added to dilution water and rehydrated for an hour with continuous aeration. While some labs perform aeration on a stir plate, Flannery demonstrated to Eagle River that she preferred the use of a fish aerator.

BOD samples are set up with dilution water, and the nutrients potassium, phosphate, magnesium sulfate, calcium chloride and ferric chloride are added to that. Those nutrients can be added individually, but there are also premade nutrient buffer pillows available. “Eagle River was adding the four different buffers individually, which potentially could cause a contamination problem or lead to setup error,” says Flannery. “I mentioned to them the pillows I use — where it’s all combined — and how they’re probably more cost-effective with less chance for error.”

Flannery says that kind of cooperation between neighboring municipalities is vital to the health, safety and happiness of her community: “We have a responsibility to the people we serve to provide them with the very best resources and services within our limited power. To do so, we have to share our knowledge and expertise with other municipalities. We do that with the mutual understanding that one day we may need to call on them for help here in Rhinelander.”

Baker-Munich isn’t the only one who has referred Flannery. Steve Ohm, DNR wastewater engineer, has called on her as a resource in the past. She has also helped the city of Tomah and other communities deal with laboratory issues, according to Kingman.

Structured for success

With Flannery’s effort and Rhinelander’s commitment to quality infrastructure, it’s not surprising that Baker-Munich found zero lab deficiencies. In fact, quality system failures in the lab are extremely rare. The lab’s only blemish in the three years before the audit was a single GGA test failure, and that anomaly was investigated and resolved immediately. “Traceability is the best I have encountered over the past four years of auditing wastewater treatment plant laboratories,” writes Baker-Munich.

The GGA failure took place in September 2015. Using her quality assurance system, Flannery ruled out her laboratory control samples as the problem and began to assess seed source and preparation as culprits. At first, she ruled out the seed source since the laboratory control samples before and after the sample in question had passed. But after reviewing the seed preparation steps taken by another analyst at the facility, she found that the seed aeration and settling time hadn’t been performed exactly in line with her SOPs.

After talking to the analyst about the importance of following procedure, Flannery documented her corrective actions, qualifying her data to ensure that the information remains useful in the future.

Closely following protocol and adhering to requirements doesn’t put Flannery’s thinking in a box. If a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t appropriate, she’s quick to come up with novel methods. For instance, she has seen more accurate recoveries for BOD and GGA samples by ordering the smaller 10-capsule batches of seed.

Flannery also autoclaves and sterilizes BOD bottles after cleaning them with soap and water. This likely contributes to Rhinelander’s absence of BOD blank exceedances. Her use of timers during BOD analysis when she’s warming samples and stabilizing probes allows for fewer variables.

Team effort

When the Rhinelander plant came online, the new lab space and updated equipment made life easier for the analysts, but that’s not the reason for their success, according to Flannery. The true foundation for the plant’s excellent reputation is found in high standards across the board. “Looking ahead and planning for the future, the elements necessary for permit compliance lie in an orderly and diligent approach by our staff for process monitoring and preventive maintenance,” she says.

Part of that future could include the pursuit of a certification process that would turn Rhinelander’s registered laboratory into a certified laboratory. “While we don’t plan on making that jump anytime soon, we always keep that idea as an option,” says Flannery.

Although that would enable the lab to perform tests for other entities, additional fees and regulations so far have prevented Rhinelander from making the leap. For now, it’s a goal to keep in mind as Flannery continues a tradition of excellence she helped instill.

Road to recognition

Jody Flannery’s path as a lab technician started 25 years ago. She had just graduated from high school and landed a job in the small Wisconsin community of Crandon, working for the Northern Lake Service environmental and analytical laboratory. There, she received training for inorganic and organic analyses, chlorophyll testing and beach testing for fecal coliform, and groundwater and well sample collection.

Northern Lake Service helped nurture Flannery’s interest in lab work, and she stayed there for 14 years before moving on to work for the city of Rhinelander. Today, she has a DNR general wastewater operator license with Advanced Laboratory Certification. She has attended Hach training for wastewater analysis for disinfection and nutrients, has taken wastewater microbiology classes from North Central Laboratories, and regularly attends training seminars to maintain her continuing education credits for certification.

Her job at Rhinelander is unique in that she analyzes both water and wastewater samples. The wastewater tests include BOD5, TSS, ammonia, phosphorus and pH. “I also do solids drying and settling testing for plant process control,” says Flannery. She tests drinking water for pH, fluoride, chlorine and orthophosphate.

In addition, Flannery analyzes mandatory and voluntary reference samples required for lab registration; orders all the sample bottles and schedules sampling for compliance testing; monitors lab instruments and water bath, refrigerator and oven temperatures; and performs all data entry for her tests and quality control. “I also perform routine and preventive maintenance for our laboratory equipment and notify the supervisor and staff of findings for any changes needed for plant process control.”

Flannery enjoys nearly everything about her job. “I have great co-workers who are supportive and will fill my lab vacancy when needed. You spend a large part of your life at work. Therefore, I like to think that if you’re doing something you enjoy, it will be reflected in the work you do.”


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