Fieldwork in a COVID world: Lessons from Eversource in protecting customers and contractors

At the early onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, Eversource, New England’s largest energy provider, made the tough call to suspend all in-person energy-efficiency work for the safety of both customers and contractors. However, the Fortune 500 company recognized it could neither meet the energy reduction goals mandated by regulators in each of the states it operates, nor provide work for a network of energy efficiency contractors numbering in the thousands by waiting out the unknown. Eversource’s management team knew they had to figure out if, and how, they could safely resume in-person work — and they had to do so quickly.

While general guidance was being made available by the CDC and other health authorities, the team at Eversource wanted to ensure they were doing everything in their power to minimize risk for their customers and contractors when energy-efficiency activities resumed in the field. They needed confidence that their health and safety guidelines would, in fact, protect people as much as possible while still allowing energy efficiency projects to go forward.

Eversource turned to Environmental Health & Engineering, Inc. (EH&E) to provide expert safety guidance on keeping customers and contractors safe and minimizing transmission of the virus.

Identifying varying levels of risks

EH&E had supported Eversource for several years on energy optimization and commissioning work but had not dug into the company’s health and safety needs. While the environmental health and safety and engineering experts at EH&E had deep bench strength from which to pull, including experts who had developed response plans for earlier pandemics, they also needed to fully grasp the nuances of their client’s operational functions.

It was critical that EH&E first understood Eversource’s operations and ways of going about their functions in order to adapt the health and safety guidance and align with the latter’s core mission. Those early investigations unveiled significant complexities that would impact the creation of comprehensive guidance.

As EH&E began to understand the diverse activities performed by Eversource’s contractor workforce, they identified varying levels of risk, depending on the task performed and the various levels of interaction with the customers. Moreover, EH&E closely followed the developing (and often changing) information on the transmission of COVID-19 and the best methods of personal protection. This evolving information was integrated with the risk assessments as a basis for developing industry-focused health and safety guidelines.

The EH&E advisory team also recognized that any guidelines would need to meet a broad range of other requirements. First, there were regulatory requirements that differed across three states where Eversource’s contractors worked. Then, there was a diverse contractor base, ranging from small 1- or 2-person businesses to large organizations with a national footprint and full health and safety teams. Finally, it was critical that the guidelines would be easily understood, digestible not only by management personnel, but also by field staff putting these recommendations into practice. EH&E considered all of these factors in putting together guidance that would be useful to a wide range of employer types and work situations.

The EH&E team also had to be sensitive to timing. Each day without health and safety guidance meant another day of lost revenue for Eversource’s contractor base. They understood the urgency and worked with Eversource to complete these guidelines within an aggressive timeline.

Meeting diverse needs with scenario-based guidance

Rather than providing blanket guidelines that would apply to all contractors and situations, EH&E ultimately developed recommendations for different scenarios. In collaboration with energy-efficiency experts from Eversource, a comprehensive guidance was produced that included separate sections addressing the different safety practices necessary for working indoors or outdoors, alone or with other people, in a home or in a business, and so on.

EH&E also set up a collaborative online workspace where all Eversource contractors could access the health and safety guidelines, view regularly updated Frequently Asked Questions, and obtain contact information for EH&E specialists who could answer specific questions or receive commentary on health and safety practices. The questions and comments received became the basis for modifying the guidelines as contractors raised practical issues from the field. The health and safety guidance was updated in two ways: Individual “Advisories” were posted, each of which dealt with one or two specific changes. These Advisories, along with other questions and comments raised by working contractors, were then eventually incorporated into revised versions of the guidelines.

For example, the initial version of the guidelines prohibited work inside customers’ homes. As EH&E and Eversource learned more about how contractors were implementing the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and how the virus causing COVID-19 was transmitted, detailed instructions were included in a new version of the guidance to allow customer-facing tasks. Other on-premise work, such as blowing insulation from the outside of a home into wall cavities, was allowed in the first version of the guidelines, but included extensive use of PPE and various restrictions. Information from the field led to changes in these recommendations that allowed contractors to work more comfortably and efficiently, while still maintaining more than adequate safety for them and their customers.

To ensure that contractors had adequate opportunities to learn the new work practices, and to verify that they understood them, the EH&E team also developed a robust training and certification process. The training included live and recorded sessions, both available online, followed by a quiz that had to be passed before contractors were allowed on a worksite.

The training and certification process gave EH&E and Eversource confidence that contractors going into the field understood the guidance and its importance in protecting them and their customers.

The EH&E team also developed a Quality Assurance/Quality Control (QA/QC) program to determine how well the new guidelines were working in the field and how well contractors complied with them. EH&E, in collaboration with Eversource, developed a comprehensive, itemized checklist to guide onsite observations, which was also used to identify areas of the guidelines that needed improvement. The use of a prescribed checklist from site to site also permitted making comparisons between different types of contractors and different work situations. The QA portion of the program was implemented by contracted vendors who specialize in inspections of energy-efficiency projects for utilities. The QC portion was performed by EH&E field technicians who conducted inspection visits to a random sampling of contractor sites across Eversource’s territory. The QC inspections served to evaluate the consistency of reporting in the larger QA program and to make changes, if necessary, in the checklist items to better reflect compliance at worksites. Through those QC visits, EH&E began to hear feedback from home and business owners, who reported feeling safer knowing that contractors had completed specialized health and safety training.

As these QA/QC activities were being performed, EH&E remained in constant contact with the core Eversource Health and Safety leadership team. EH&E hosted daily meetings to discuss new technical issues identified, to address training needs, and to review contractor concerns from the field. Those meetings became less frequent as fewer and fewer issues needed resolution, and the meetings ended when adequate QC data had been collected, reviewed, and acted upon as necessary. Even though the project had reached a successful conclusion, EH&E’s health and safety team assured Eversource they could quickly pivot to address any new questions or issues Eversource faced.

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As a Director of Energy Efficiency Implementation for Eversource, Frank Gundal has played an instrumental role in the development of go-to-market strategies that have earned national recognition. Throughout his career He has championed new ways of delivering energy efficiency more cost-effectively and helped drive forward-thinking energy efficiency and clean energy policies. Frank has a B.S. Engineering from University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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