Updated resource guide to help electric utilities safely transition to “normal” operations amid COVID-19

Published on May 13, 2020 by Hil Anderson

Credit: Entergy

Electric utility managers have access to an updated checklist of best practices to follow as they begin the cautious process of bringing employees safely back into the workplace to resume more normal operations after weeks of remote work amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC) resource guide on Assessing and Mitigating the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) was updated on May 11 with information for a responsible reentry and return to the workplace for investor-owned electric companies, electric cooperatives and public power utilities. Given the essential mission of the power industry to ensure that energy operations and infrastructure are supported throughout any emergency, the guide underscores that the electric power industry never stopped working during the pandemic response – it just worked differently.

The updated information comes as states began tentatively moving toward a phased “reopening” of their respective economies, which is taking place while the virus itself is still well established in some areas nationwide. The 112-page guide is designed to guide localized decisions in response to the global health emergency.

“It highlights data points, stakeholders, and options to consider in making decisions about operational status, while protecting the health and safety of employees, customers, and communities,” ESCC said in the document’s introduction. The contents feature a meticulously gathered comprehensive list of recommendations for reopening offices and resuming field operations in a manner that improves the level of safety and efficiency.

A specific piece of important advice for managers was to keep a close eye on the day-to-day status of COVID-19 in their local areas in case a new surge in infections requires a “full or partial reclosure of the office in the event of a second wave or unexpected spike.” The threshold for a reclosure should be clearly communicated to the rank-and-file workforce. Industry plans for returning to the workplace should be coordinated with state and local governments and executed in phases, the guide said.

The ESCC update also includes proposals for deploying crews into the field, rearranging office layouts and procedures, and a major reappraisal of technology to better accommodate long-term telecommuting.

Field Operations
While electric company field crews have remained on the job to respond to outages and to carry out maintenance, some larger-scale projects and service calls may have been suspended amid the COVID-19 shutdown. Restarting such projects will require satisfactory supplies of protective gear for workers and procedures that maximize the ability to social distance. The resource guide recommends:

• Vehicles should be occupied by a single worker and loaded by warehouse or service-center personnel only;
• Field workers should be prohibited from entering company offices if possible;
• Overnight travel should include single-occupancy hotel rooms with microwaves or kitchenettes;
• Employees scheduling service requests should ask callers if a COVID-19 risk exists at the location;
• Field workers responding to service calls need the option to decline to enter and note a “safety stop” on the work order.

Maintaining communications with local authorities is a key step since it will enable utility crews to steer clear of COVID-19 hot spots or local restrictions on outdoor work.

Office Repopulation
Switching to remote work was an obvious choice for office workers, many of whom normally toil in relatively tight spaces, such as call centers with large staffs. Things will look and feel a bit different when they finally return to their desks. The guide included a number of recommendations to bolster the safety of employees, including:

• Ensuring the now-familiar 6 feet of social-distancing space between workstations;
• Leaving every other cubicle unoccupied in a checkerboard pattern is an easy start;
• Provide cleaner wipes and hand sanitizers in common areas such as conference rooms, lobbies, and break areas;
• Designated elevators and stairwells for specific floors or departments;
• Make workers aware of company protocol if they start feeling a sore throat or spike a fever;
• Be cognizant of the health status within the local area since restrictions on mass transit and child care can affect an employee’s ability to be present at work.

And for some companies, telecommuting could be extended to some employees indefinitely if the experience has been a positive one. The ESCC said working from home could be an attractive option for older workers and for employees with caregiving responsibilities or children still at home due to school closures.

Expanded IT
Following an extended period of telecommuting, an electric utility’s information technology department will have its hands full once employees begin returning to the office. The report suggested that IT will play an integral role in a smooth and secure transition.

• IT should check computers to ensure security protocols are still in place and were followed by the users;
• Remove sensitive company information that had been downloaded to home computers;
• Discourage the sharing of equipment in the office;
• Maintain strong security on home networks as a precaution in case employees have to return to telecommuting.

Meanwhile, the electric power industry’s ability to maintain flexibility during the coronavirus pandemic while conducting mission-essential work has been an impressive achievement. The ESCC COVID-19 resource guide is expected to make a return to a more “normal” work environment a more seamless process.