Electric and gas utilities are the very definition of “essential businesses.” Recognizing how dependent customers are upon their services, utilities have made every possible effort to maintain continuity during the COVID-19 pandemic. They have kept workers in the field to perform required tasks while enabling others – including customer service representatives and corporate staff – to work from home.
Utilities have had to address workers’ concerns about their own safety and about their interactions with customers and co-workers. In addition, they have had to keep operating while short-handed, as workers themselves fell sick, cared for ailing relatives, or dealt with unexpected child-care obligations, as schools and day care services closed.
Many companies have deferred non-critical maintenance and capital projects over the last few months and are now facing a significant backlog of work. In the U.S. and elsewhere, utilities are also now entering the summer season, so often plagued by severe weather events, while facing periods of peak power demand.
As states reopen for business, utilities now face the challenge of re-integrating employees back into the workplace. They need to deliver services and maintain key assets, while protecting the workforce. Utilities will need flexibility and creativity to establish a new working environment. Companies often note their employees are their most important asset, but this is the time to prove it.
Tracking Employee Health
The central task facing utilities is in making sure that the workforce is healthy and remains healthy. Effective monitoring is critical. Fortunately, utilities have multiple ways to track employee health, including:
Thermal scanning. Touchless temperature-taking is non-invasive and detects one key COVID-19 symptom. However, thermal scanning will not detect asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers, and, conversely, some people with elevated temperatures will be suffering from illnesses other than COVID-19. Therefore, thermal scans, if used, should be part of a larger monitoring program.
Testing. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), employers may screen employees for COVID-19, but mandatory medical tests must be job-related and consistent with business necessity. Tests should be reliable and cannot be administered selectively. It may be possible to work with local public health officials to create an employee-only testing capacity and/or on-site health screening and service facilities.
Other screening. Some companies use questionnaires and other tools to help employees determine if they have COVID-19 symptoms, indicating the need for further testing. As is the case with thermal scanning, these tools are helpful but not sufficient on their own to detect individuals who may be carrying the disease.
Non-COVID assessments. Essential workers are subject to high levels of stress, which may lead to other health problems. Some companies ask workers to self-evaluate their own mental health, while others are providing and promoting resources to help workers deal with the stress they face both on the job and at home.
Physical and environmental monitoring are also important. In both office environments and in power-generating plants, systems should be in place to evaluate air quality and flow. Management should have a firm grasp on workplace population density and the amount of space between employees. Adequate spacing is required not only in the workplace but in eating spaces, break rooms and elsewhere – even elevators.
To do this, management should walk through all relevant response and operations centers and identify opportunities to minimize the risk of exposure. Floor tape, arrows and other signage can encourage one-way traffic flow and social distancing, while open stairwells create one way up/down traffic flow between floors and to or from ground level. The maximum capacity of rooms in use should be cut by 50 to 75 percent.
Developing New Ways of Working
To minimize risks related to the pandemic, utilities are also looking at their existing workplaces along with the way they staff assignments and schedule employees. The pandemic, however, provides an opportunity to examine new ways of getting work done. Indeed, some companies that have been forced into new arrangements have found unexpected benefits in terms of operating efficiencies, reduced costs and more direct contact with customers. The key is to look at what has and has not worked, and to make the useful changes permanent.
There are two main principles at work here. The first is to try to reduce the number of workers that need to come to headquarters or other central locations every day. This can be accomplished by reviewing scheduling, assignments and crew rotations to make sure that teams are as lean as possible; by setting up cloud-based, virtual customer contact centers that enable workers to deal with customers from anywhere including their homes; and by cross-training people to increase the number of skills while reducing the number of people required at operations centers.
The second principle is to make sure that field workers can work safely and effectively with as little in-person interaction as possible with headquarters or operations centers. In addition to providing mobile tools and technologies, some companies are experimenting with “take your vehicle home” policies to circumvent extra touch points. And, of course, companies should make certain that workers have enough high-quality personal protective equipment (PPE) when they need to interact with customers or co-workers.
There are many other elements involved in successfully reintegrating the utilities work force, including the application of health and safety standards to contractors and the continuing review and update of federal, state and local guidelines pertaining to COVID-19. One of the most important elements, however, is communications. Management should communicate – often and in detail – with workers, customers, regulators and other shareholders – to explain the measures being taken and the progress being made, as well as to underscore the company’s commitment to its HSE objectives.
For utility companies, employees’ health is the biggest factor in the return to “normal” working conditions. Utilities should implement comprehensive, detailed plans, not only to keep employees safe, but to bring them back to the workplace in a manner ensuring maximum safety with minimum disruption.