Pandemic Diaries: Water Utilities’ Perspectives and Crisis Response (VOL. 2)

by Rebecca Shanahan
Wave Blue
Dec 02, 2020

During the early months of the pandemic, representatives from all management levels within WaterStart member utilities convened regularly to discuss challenges and potential solutions to the Covid-19 crisis.  These discussions are summarized in five volumes titled Pandemic Diaries and will be updated as the pandemic evolves and, eventually, resolved.

VOLUME 2: Workforce Management

A major theme during the member Covid calls related to workforce management and the associated challenges in managing both staff deemed essential and nonessential.  Across the globe, organizations were now forced to navigate new working conditions and the issues around access and, primarily, safety. All members shared some expectation that an infected staff member, no matter the degree of protective measures, would at some point increase the risk of spread to the entire workforce.

To limit the rate of infection among staff, the majority of staff deemed nonessential or those team members whose role was not critical to the daily operations and delivery of safe drinking water, were transitioned to work-from-home settings.  For those deemed essential, such as SCADA operators, one member shared their assessment of sheltering-in-place versus providing remote access to those staff. At the time, there was a rush on trailers/campers that could be equipped to support a shelter-in-place scenario and those had become limited in supply. Further, the longterm reality of the pandemic had been recognized and therefore, shelter-in-place did not present a long-term solution.  Staff working remotely, though, certainly created its own set of challenges.

Members shared many common challenges around the remote workforce transition:

– Addressing firewalls so that SCADA operators could be equipped with at-home SCADA terminals.  One  member equipped operators with at-home workstations and vpn setups that only allow those specific computers to dial into the SCADA dashboard.

– Assessing and rolling out the most secure virtual meeting platform and efficient cloud-based file structure, if one had not already been utilized.  All members already had varying degrees of tools that they could apply under certain circumstances.  For most members, the pandemic forced them to evaluate and leverage these existing tools and solutions, including some that had not been rolled out across the organization.  Most members selected Microsoft Teams, mostly because many of them had already owned the software.

– Evaluating the need for flexible work schedules in support of staff who had children also at home participating in distance learning.  Adopting flexible schedules also allowed for staff to enter the workplace and still achieve the proper social distancing recommendations.

– Measuring productivity while balancing privacy of staff’s digital activity.  This challenge has been mostly negated as staff across the membership have proven to be just as effective and efficient, if not more so, than before the pandemic. Many members are considering allowing remote working conditions to continue post pandemic.

– Ensuring availability and access to the appropriate personal and protective equipment (PPE).  Many members reported the unavailability of PPE and the confusion as to which type of PPE was adequate made rollout of the proper PPE quite difficult.  Inadequate PPE posed unique challenges for essential field workers.

– Identifying guidelines for the work environment.  How does staff who are on the work site maintain the 6-feet distance rule?  Should the number of essential staff change as the infection rate changes? How is staff trained properly under remote conditions? How often should disinfection and proper cleaning take place? Are the procedures adequately aligning with government guidelines and how are these updated to regularly reflect any changing guidelines?

– Assessing liability and insurance related to the new working conditions.  Utilities could be unnecessarily exposing themselves to litigation or negative financial impact.

– Ensuring mental health of staff, specifically those that are experiencing heighted anxiety or are feeling disconnected or abandoned.

Be sure to register for our upcoming CHANNELS Connect webinar for an update on this topic!!  Check your inbox and spam folder for details!

Key takeaways:

  • Regularly perform an assessment and record essential and nonessential staff with skills audited and documented.
  • Compile fully developed and documented procedures to address workplace scenarios for the next pandemic with practical implications for the timing and maintenance of workplace cleaning, hot desk procedures and social responsibility of individuals and teams.
  • Compile fully developed procedures for rapid response should Covid or the next virus infect the workforce, which would include health guidance on direct and indirect contact with the affected individual.
  • Maintain a stockpile of a range of appropriate PPE and develop a policy reflecting organizational decisions to ensure staff compliance and consequences for noncompliance.
  • Over-communicate with staff on a personal level as a check on their well-being and provide relevant support for those who may be identified as vulnerable.
  • Regularly review current law, related policies, insurance and employee/union contracts to stay abreast of liabilities when determining the necessary levels of workforce.
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