Utilities across the nation have taken steps to reduce the spread of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) among their workforce, seeking to keep their employees safe and reduce the chances their customers experience service interruptions.
Utilities in some areas hit hard by the virus have quarantined the staff of control rooms in their workplace, so the virus can't get in and take them, and the control room, out of commission.
"Fortunately we have not had to pursue this option at this point in time," said Mark Buckner, Dalton Utilities' chief watershed operations officer. "That is an option that we would potentially consider if needed. Our treatment plant staff currently work 12-hour shifts and we operate our plants with minimal staff and they are able to maintain safe social distancing while at work. We are equipped with pandemic supplies such as cots and food for our staff in the event we are forced to quarantine our treatment plant operators."
Buckner said the utility has staggered the work shift for many of its water and wastewater field crews to limit the number of people at the Operations Building during the traditional arrival and departure time periods.
"We have eliminated having our folks travel to the various job sites in the same vehicle," he said. "And we have provided each employee with their own vehicle unless the vehicle is large enough to accommodate multiple staff while maintaining the 6-foot spacing requirement."
Buckner said that it may still be necessary for employees to work more closely together than 6 feet.
"This would only be allowed for emergency-type situations," he said.
In the electricity and natural gas parts of the utility, John Thomas, chief energy services officer. said they also strive to maintain social distancing.
"We have canceled all meetings that can be avoided and scheduled as many conference calls in place of face-to-face meetings as possible," he said. "Our employees are already traveling to job sites in a manner that facilitates social distancing guidelines. Much of our workforce can either work from home or take a DU vehicle home so they can travel directly to the job site for initial response."
Still, he said, there are times when employees must work together more closely than 6 feet.
"There are, however, activities related to public safety during which we must respond in a manner that puts some employees in close proximity," he said. "These instances are only in cases that involve the safety of the public. Examples are responding to and managing natural gas leaks as well as repairing damaged or failed electrical infrastructure."
Kenny Stokes, a wastewater shift supervisor, said the changes have not been difficult to implement.
"The Wastewater Department is spread out enough that our operators are generally not working in the same areas, so keeping more than 6 feet apart is not a problem for us," he said. "We have made changes in the way we maneuver around to different plants. Operators now ride in separate vehicles to their work areas and do not gather in groups for lunch or shift changes. Most communications are made by phone, or in outside areas with distancing rules maintained. Other than some small inconveniences, the operators feel comfortable with the working conditions and they feel that everyone in the department has pulled together and taken the necessary steps to meet their concerns to maintain distancing and limit exposure."
Don Johnson, director of technical services (telecommunications), said they are staggering work day start times to limit the amount of employees in the same building at the same time.
"We also have some employees driving their company vehicles home so they can begin and end work days without coming to the office," he said. "Employees are limited to one person per vehicle and are asked to maintain a 6-foot working distance at all times. We have several employees working from home and with the technology we have in place, customers can still receive the same high level of service. We have instructed our employees to wipe down their work stations/area at the beginning and end of each shift, and to wipe down the inside of company vehicles before they enter and after they leave job sites as they may have come in contact with customers or other team members."
Other steps taken by the utility include closing the lobby of its headquarters. It is also allowing employees, when possible, to work from home, eliminating nonessential internal meetings, barring non-vital personnel from coming into buildings and using teleconferencing for meetings, both internal and external.
Editor's note: In an effort to keep the community updated on news about the new coronavirus (COVID-19), articles posted to our website under "Breaking News" are available to everyone for free, whether or not you're a subscriber. We encourage you to support us by subscribing to the Daily Citizen-News or by buying a copy of the newspaper at a local store or newspaper box.