The Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC) has released a Mission Essential Workforce List in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ESCC, on which the American Public Power Association serves, is a liaison between the federal government and the electric power industry on certain high-level resilience and response issues such as pandemics. Kevin Wailes, administrator and CEO of Lincoln Electric System, serves as co-chair of the ESCC, while Joy Ditto, President and CEO of APPA, serves on the ESCC Steering Committee.
“There is a subset of highly skilled energy workers who are unable to work remotely and who are mission-essential during this extraordinary time,” the ESCC notes in the document. “While we understand the current limitations of COVID-19 testing, there is a critical need for a targeted approach—endorsed by federal, state, and local partners—that ensures testing of these workers.”
The ESCC noted that keeping a limited pool of highly skilled workers available to operate control centers and generation facilities is a top priority. Access to testing will help isolate healthy operators so they can remain available.
The ESCC said that based on an analysis by the electricity subsector, the nuclear sector, and the natural gas distribution segment of the oil and natural gas subsector, the mission-essential portion of the energy workforce that needs priority COVID-19 testing should be identified based on factors that include, but are not limited to:
- Workers’ functional connections to maintaining reliability;
- The amount of lead time required to train these personnel;
- The limited pool of people with these qualifications; and
- Rhe risks to regional reliability if this workforce is severely impacted
“Our requests for testing and other priority needs for these workers (e.g., PPE, access to restricted areas, cleaning products) are informed by tracking the spread of COVID-19 across the country and in individual communities,” the ESCC said.
APPA and the power sector acknowledge that healthcare workers should have first access to personal protective equipment.
Identifying mission-essential staff
The ESCC said that the following categories of workers are mission-essential staff for whom priority access to COVID-19 testing is paramount:
Generating facilities or power plants generally are isolated, physically secure, and conducive to sequestering staff on-site, the ESCC said.
“The specialized workers in these facilities have years of experience and specific knowledge of a plant’s systems, and other employees cannot be shifted easily or trained in a short time.” The types of employees include control room operators and supervisors, operator technicians and instrument and control technicians.
The training, licensing, and qualifications for nuclear power plant workers can be more stringent than for other sources of electric power generation, the ESCC said. “If any one of these positions goes unstaffed on a shift, a plant is at significant risk of triggering multiple Nuclear Regulatory Commission violations and a mandatory shutdown order from the federal government.”
The types of employees include:
- Licensed control room operators and designated supervision;
- Non-licensed operators;
- Radiation protection technicians;
- Fire brigade members and designated supervisors;
- Maintenance personnel;
- Armed security officers, armed responders, and other committed positions in the physical security plan; and
- Emergency response organization positions described in the licensee’s emergency plan
ELECTRIC TRANSMISSION AND DISTRIBUTION
As with generation facilities, electric transmission and distribution control centers generally are well situated for sequestration of mission-essential workers, the ESCC said.
“Due to the specialized nature of these jobs and the tools required to maintain energy grid operations, the limited number of employees with these qualifications requires a high priority for protection.”
The types of employees include control room operators and supervisors and reliability engineers.
NATURAL GAS DISTRIBUTION
These operators are fully responsible for controlling the flow of natural gas, including ensuring system operational integrity, identifying abnormal operating conditions, and maintaining system security, the ESCC said.
They have specialized training stipulated by pipeline safety regulations under the authority of the Department of Transportation and, therefore, require a high priority for protection.
The types of employees include control center operators and facility operators.
Sequestration and control rooms
The checklist also includes a section about sequestration and control rooms.
“Many electric and natural gas companies, public power utilities, and electric cooperatives consider a 10-percent infection rate in their service territory a trigger to begin sequestering mission-essential employees,” the ESCC noted.
Some sequestration is underway in certain areas, with employees and contractors living on-site at power plants and other facilities. “It is critical that sequestered employees who are in close quarters be tested before and during sequestration. This health monitoring allows teams to adjust duties quickly if colleagues test positive for COVID-19 and need to be quarantined.”
In the mission-essential and secure control rooms, operators use specialized equipment to monitor and control generation, transmission, and distribution and to perform switching to deliver energy to critical services and end-use customers. Operators also coordinate emergency response and restoration in the event energy flow is interrupted for any reason.
“By design, and in adherence to federally mandated reliability and cybersecurity regulations, control rooms are closed quarters, with several people working in tight proximity for 8-12 hours per shift,” the ESCC said.
These functions cannot be performed remotely. If one or more employees working a shift becomes infected, current guidance requires a 14-day quarantine of the entire shift, removing these operators from the workforce for at least two full weeks.
“To maintain reliability, it is necessary to have a backup shift pre-tested and ready to step in. Without adequate testing, energy companies could exhaust the limited supply of these mission-essential employees in a matter of a few weeks.”
And, without adequate control room teams and other mission-essential workers, “we would face service interruptions for electricity and natural gas customers; unavoidable power plant shutdowns; regional load instability; and multi-region brownouts or blackouts, especially in more extreme weather months or other significant energy grid events, such as a cyberattack.”