Powering Strong Communities

From the frontline to the front desk: Keeping utility workers safe during the pandemic

Whether performing critical field repairs, keeping a generating plant running, or interacting with customers, public power utility workers didn’t miss a beat in getting their jobs done amid the pandemic. Still, utility workers faced challenges in adjusting work routines to a “new normal” and in keeping up with the latest safety precautions. Utilities tapped into existing emergency plans, relied on government and industry information, and quickly formed teams to put together procedures for this array of challenges.

Health as part of safety

Individual public power utilities often had to deal with new and wide-ranging issues related to the coronavirus on the fly, but they built solutions off a foundation of making employee health a priority.

“We’ve had such a strong culture of employee safety for a long time, so our employees responded very well to the changes due to the pandemic,” said Dave Koster, general manager at Holland Board of Public Works, which serves a community of about 75,000 people along the fast-growing southwest coast of Lake Michigan. “Workers know to wear safety glasses or a hard hat, and now a mask and other requirements to mitigate these risks are included,” he said.

“That made it easier, but there were nonetheless a lot of considerations to make certain everyone stayed healthy,” added Koster.

Along with messages about safety, HBPW benefited from a thorough continuity of operations plan and, by chance, an organizational structure change that late last year had given Business Services Director Becky Lehman new responsibility for human resources, facilities, technology and regulatory issues.

Koster said that also made handling the diverse issues that arose during the pandemic more efficient.

“Nothing could completely prepare you for this. We were thinking our continuity of operations plan would be responsive to a fire or tornado, but the planning and structural things we did in advance of the pandemic paid off for our organization,” Koster said.

The Fayetteville Public Works Commission in North Carolina also found that proactive measures helped, particularly a staff health professional with key links to state and county health officials.

“This provided us with a direct pipeline to those who were in the know so we could have the most up-to-date information for planning,” said David W. Trego, CEO and general manager.

Added protection

As concern about the pandemic rose in the community and nationwide, and it became more challenging to find personal protective equipment for workers, Koster relied on support from the American Public Power Association and others for sufficient resources.

Trego said the FPWC acted quickly when concern about the pandemic rose — including buying personal protective equipment right away, before there was a rush to acquire it. The utility also took measures to ensure worker safety, including installing barriers in high-traffic areas, such as FPWC’s warehouse.

Fayetteville PWC officials also staggered shifts, purchased and installed hands-free temperature-check equipment, implemented a mandatory mask policy, and required workers to complete a health questionnaire from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention each day on the job. FPWC also sequestered key employees at water, wastewater and power plant operations.

“We rented recreational vehicles for them to basically live in when they were not working and arranged for meal service and other amenities,” Trego said. “We also made sure that employees who were reporting to normal work locations had all of the protective equipment they needed.”

The HBPW had essential workers work in shifts and configured work in the field as much as possible to create pods of workers and to avoid unnecessary contact. Most other employees moved to working at home, including customer service personnel, who were set up with remote access to the phone system. The utility planned for sequestration of some employees at its power plant and other key locations, though it didn’t become necessary to implement that plan.

A guide from the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council — a group comprised of leadership from utilities and other organizations key to the industry, including APPA — noted that sequestration is a decision that requires careful study and “is the most resource- and cost-intensive option to implement.”

“Our workforce is the foundation for everything we do,” the Assessing and Mitigating the Novel Coronavirus guide from the ESCC notes. “The health and safety of our employees, contractors, and customers is a paramount consideration, shaping every decision we make.”

The guide offers a set of circumstances or “triggers” to determine if and when sequestration is the best option, noting that “sequestration presents additional challenges to employees and their families at a time when stress and uncertainty already are running high.”

For utilities, safety measures for workers needed to extend beyond utility facilities.

“We had to be concerned about safety on both sides,” Lehman said. “While we knew our workers were being safe, we had to allow for other environments and other people’s susceptibility.”

HBPW developed procedures for essential service calls, including the use of familiar safety measures such as 6-foot distancing, masks, hand sanitizing and temperature checks of workers, as well as health screening for the customer premises that workers were entering.

Information flow

The ESCC guide asserts that “maintaining frequent and transparent communications with employees and contractors is imperative throughout a pandemic.”

Both utilities found employees were extremely cooperative in the new work environment, and Koster said a key was providing them with reliable information. He sent out a weekly newsletter with updates, and the utility continually updated its website.

“Right off the bat, we realized we needed to give employees good, accurate information,” he said, noting that a variety of sources were used.

In addition to the comprehensive guide from the ESCC, which offers detailed instructions about everything from safe procedures for visiting customers, how to manage a control center, and considerations for mutual aid, utilities turned to trusted resources for information to share.

The ESCC guide pointed to three coronavirus-related resources from the CDC:

Lehman said she relied on the CDC for consistent national data and general COVID-19 information, coordinated with other Michigan public power providers through weekly calls and tapped into resources from the utility’s labor attorney to help interpret shifting regulations. Michigan’s governor issued more than 180 executive orders that required diligence, she said.

Koster noted that the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration also provided helpful guidelines to plug into the utility’s protocols.

Trego similarly relied on state regulations.

“In North Carolina, the governor implemented a multiphase transition. While FPWC, like other APPA members, did not have to follow these guidelines because we are an essential service, we used the phases as guidance for our own transition,” he said. “We realized that as our customers transitioned, their needs would change, and we would need to react to provide the proper level of customer service.”

Trade organizations such as APPA were also helpful with guidance and locating personal protective equipment, and a regional economic organization excelled at coordinating supplies of materials in the Holland region, Koster said. That group even worked with breweries that were transitioning to making sanitizing supplies and helped businesses find paycheck protection support or loans under the CARES Act, the federal pandemic response legislation.

Both utilities’ existing structures for mutual aid were beneficial, providing guidance on ways to provide or seek help if the pandemic threatened operations. But they also had to consider how to outfit crews if another emergency struck and they were needed in a region where virus cases were peaking.

The road ahead

As the pandemic wore on and additional information about risks and ways to stay safe became available, both utilities began to change strategies.

The potential for infection or quarantine measures internally is one of Koster’s concerns. He noted that, on average, for each infected person, 10 others might have to be monitored or quarantined.

“If you had several cases, that would quickly make it very difficult for an organization to function,” he said. “So we, along with other utilities in Michigan, pushed to get our workers prioritized for testing. Multiple days of isolation for employees who may or may not have been infected would be very difficult.”

The two utilities are still providing information to employees and monitoring their health. HBPW has a detailed eight-level classification system in place that categorizes employees based on their contact with others who might be infected, along with symptoms and test results. The FPWC medical staff and county officials have developed a contact tracing system, which helps them also determine if other workers might be at risk.

At the height of the concern for FPWC in its region, 75% of its workforce was reporting from or working from home, but by mid-September, only about one-third was working remotely. A mandatory mask order was still in place, as were staggered shifts. Walk-in customer service was not open.

“We’ve transitioned many employees to reporting to their normal workplace, but it’s based upon the needs of our business and our customers,” Trego said.

As of mid-September, FPWC reported only a few cases out of its 600-person workforce, and Koster indicated that only one of HBPW’s 180 workers had a confirmed case. Both found that those employees did not contract the virus on the job.