Opinion: Looking to the Future During an Unprecedented Time
As I sit and write this article, I’m also gazing into my crystal ball, so to speak. I realize that life as we knew it just a few short months ago has changed. COVID-19 has made its way around the world and we are now working during an unprecedented time. Utilities have been designated as essential services, requiring employees to continue working as normally as possible, but with the pandemic in the background each day, I think it’s safe to say we are establishing a new normal. Back in the 1990s, I worked with an executive who once said, “Normal will never come back.” He was referring to competitive rates and regulations, but the coronavirus pandemic, too, will forever change the way utilities do business. And that means that, as we continue to move forward, we will need to put an equal amount of emphasis on both employee health and safe work practices.
So, what are some of the things we should currently be aware of regarding COVID-19 and utilities? And what should we be thinking about for the future?
Recordability, Masks and Rapid Response Teams
For starters, current working conditions require all of us to be more cautious in our interactions with other employees, customers and the general public. Additional precautions that may be introduced in the near future to prevent or mitigate viral exposure likely will require new equipment and regulations – and worker training.
From an OSHA recordability perspective, guidelines are now being revised as to whether coronavirus-related cases will be classified as work-related cases or not. This will be difficult for both OSHA and employers to manage since the virus’s incubation period can be days or even weeks before the affected worker becomes symptomatic – if they become symptomatic at all. According to the current OSHA 29 CFR 1904 standard, there will be addendums needed to assist employers in determining recordability.
There was a time in the past when crew members kept their canned drinks in a community water keg. At lunch, all crew members would reach into the keg to retrieve their drinks. That habit started changing many years ago, and in the future, I suspect the practice will rarely, if ever, be seen again. Hand-sanitizer dispensers likely will be installed on vehicles and in offices in every building, if they haven’t been already. I suspect face masks will become standard PPE when working around the public, particularly large gatherings. Bearded employees may have issues if that comes to pass. While there currently are no face masks that have an arc rating, I believe there is no real need for arc-rated face masks because an arc-rated face shield will provide adequate protection. In addition, I also believe there will be few times where more than one person will be working in an energized area.
Rapid response teams may be needed in certain situations that require additional respiratory protection. The response teams that were formed after 9/11 were never needed again until now. Fit-tested self-contained breathing apparatuses would most likely be the first choice for entry in high-exposure areas. The industry has been conscious of permissible exposure limits of hazardous materials, but there has never been an emphasis on protecting the worker from airborne or casual contact health issues. I suspect that will change in the future.
Sanitizing, Universal Precautions and Physical Distancing
Just what will our new workplace look like, both in the field and at the office? Beyond those hand-sanitizing stations being installed, there probably will be some uncomfortable moments when dealing with contractors and customers. Vendors will be coming and going. Will we still abide by social distancing guidelines or revert to what we have done all our lives? It’s certainly something to think about. Management will be expected to develop new policies and procedures based on this pandemic. Because employees who share tools over the course of different shifts can potentially increase viral exposure to all involved, cleaning and disinfecting tools and equipment before and after use most likely will become standard policy, and additional training for all employees will be needed.
Universal precautions have always been used when training employees on providing first aid and CPR. But because training has never emphasized preventing the spread of airborne illnesses, additional precautions will likely now be added to further protect employees. Early identification of COVID-19 symptoms will be critical. Further, we should not let symptomatic employees work with other employees or near members of the public because of their ability to potentially spread infection. I noted above that tools will need to be cleaned and disinfected regularly to prevent communal spread, and so will other items that are used or touched by many employees, including time clocks, elevators and handrails. It will be best to identify and develop programs based on individual work locations. My first thought is to include additional measures that require written PPE hazard certification.
The phrase “social distancing” will probably be replaced with “physical distancing.” Common acts of friendship and concern may go by the wayside. Shaking hands and the comforting one-armed hug that have always been a part of our work life may never happen again. Instead, we will have to come up with alternative ways to express our feelings. The elbow bump may become quite common in the future.
Lastly, the return of nonessential employees to our workplaces will probably involve a very structured approach. It will no doubt include limiting exposure to one another to help ensure another coronavirus spike does not occur. One-person buckets, one person to a vehicle when traveling and office space renovations to increase physical distance between workers most likely will occur.
The reality is that utility employees will always be essential to the livelihood and well-being of those who live in this country and all around the world. We live in a time in which day-to-day life cannot proceed as normal unless workers provide electric, gas and other needed utilities. Hospitals, fire departments and the police all depend on the services we provide. To continue providing these essential services, we must take the appropriate precautions to ensure the health and safety of our workers.
About the Author: Danny Raines, CUSP, safety consultant, distribution and transmission, retired from Georgia Power after 40 years of service and opened Raines Utility Safety Solutions LLC, providing compliance training, risk assessments and safety observation programs. He also is an affiliate instructor at Georgia Tech Research Center OSHA Outreach in Atlanta.