Experts Share Advice on Continuity of Operations During Coronavirus Pandemic

March 27, 2020

WEF Resources & Efforts

Even during the coronavirus pandemic, water resource recovery facilities (WRRFs) cannot cease operations even for a moment. It remains critical, then, for WRRF managers to develop actionable plans to ensure continuity of operations despite potential staffing shortages and supply chain disruptions.

For utility managers, effectively responding to coronavirus requires additional attention to employee safety and welfare, workplace hygiene, and public communications. Water sector experts discussed these vital considerations for WRRFs during the Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.) webcast, “Pandemic Continuity of Operations (COOP) Essential Personnel”.

Provide Flexibility and Reassurance Where Possible

Essential personnel, which includes many WRRF operators, must remain on-site despite social-distancing requirements, John Bennett, Deputy Executive Manager for the Trinity River Authority (TRA; Arlington, Texas). These workers are there to continue providing clean water and maintain regulatory compliance. For these employees, work shift exceptions and schedule modifications often are done on a case-by-case basis.

Water resource recovery facilities must remain in operation at all time despite staffing shortages related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In a new Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.) webcast, utility managers discuss issues related to ensuring continuity of operations at water facilities. Image courtesy of Pixabay

“Trying to ‘navigate the waters,’ so to speak, to find options that are most equitable and work best for the specific duties of the employees that are out there has been quite a challenge,” Bennett said.

TRA manages both large and small WRRFs, ranging from a 3-mgd facility with seven employees to a 162-mgd facility with over 200 employees. While the majority of TRA’s support staff are working remotely, a large fraction of operators are on the job.

In recent weeks, TRA has begun staggering operator shifts such that only the bare minimum number of employees are operating equipment at a time. Dusti Lowndes, Director of Emergency Management for DC Water (Washington, D.C.) described a similar approach, in addition to limiting all fieldwork and construction activities to only the most essential, emergency-related projects. Charlotte (N.C.) Water also is using workforce staggering. And the utility is updating and restocking its emergency operator supply kits in case operators need to stay at their WRRF stations for extended periods of time, according to Operations Chief Joseph Lockler.

Recognizing that shift modifications may lead to irregular work hours with financial repercussions, Charlotte Water also is ensuring its operations staff are compensated fairly.

“There were operators who may not have necessarily gotten in 40 hours per week,” Lockler said. “We have made a commitment as a department that we are going to ensure, no matter what, that our employees are paid for a minimum of 40 hours. Right now, they are our most critical asset and we know that. We have to keep them healthy and in the plant.”

On the other hand, employees who must work overtime to keep services operating during the coronavirus pandemic also must be compensated accordingly, advised Teresa Jakubowski, a partner at the law firm Barnes & Thornburg (Washington, D.C.).

“It’s very important to accurately track overtime during this period. Some employees may be working longer shifts to cover for those have to be absent due to illness or exposure,” Jakubowski said. “Also, to the extent employees are working outside of their regular positions, you will need to ensure that your determinations of exempt or non-exempt status remain accurate.” 

Maintain a Clean Workplace

Although Jakubowski emphasized that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has specified no additional requirements to stem the spread of coronavirus, she also reminded employers about their general requirement to address known hazards in the workplace. In the case of coronavirus, that entails observing U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidance as well as directives from state and local health departments, Jakubowski said.

Speakers from TRA, DC Water, and Charlotte Water described new, rigorous cleaning and disinfection regimens of all their facilities, occurring at all common WRRF areas as often as before each shift.

Many water resource recovery facility operators are essential personnel who cannot work remotely. Utilities can keep employees safe and motivated by communicating frequently with their staff, minimizing infection risks, and being flexible with their scheduling, webcast speakers advised. Image courtesy of Preston Keres/U.S. Department of Agriculture

At DC Water, all contractors who must be onsite at its facilities must now fill out a detailed form that helps the utility’s dedicated emergency response team identify potential infection risk factors, Lowndes said.

TRA’s official procedures have always specified that operators are not to bring their personal protective equipment home after their shifts, however, Bennett admitted that that rule was not always enforced. Operators now must change into street clothes on-site at the end of their shifts to limit disease transmission risks, he said. TRA also has instituted a maximum limit of two people at a time traveling in any TRA vehicle.

Charlotte Water currently has five major construction projects ongoing, meaning construction crews and contractors still must move in and out of utility facilities, Lockler said.

“We put notice out to all our contractors that work is going to continue, but that contractors, inspectors, vendors should have no in-person contact whatsoever with operations and maintenance staff,” Lockler said. 

Communicate Both Internally and Externally

As the effects of the coronavirus pandemic become more evident, Steve Frank, executive vice president of emergency communications firm SDF Communications (Laguna Niguel, Calif.) urged utility managers toward transparency about their challenges and preparedness.

“Your job of continuing to provide service to your community isn’t done until you’ve considered the communication part of it,” Frank said. “You have two audiences to consider – your external audience, your customers; and your internal audience, your employees.”

Leadership at TRA are first making sure that employees have authoritative information about how coronavirus spreads and what they can do to mitigate it. They also are being sure to consult employees about potential schedule changes or workflow modifications.

“We’re constantly making sure credible information is getting on bulletin boards, getting posted on doors, and that the supervisors are talking to their crews about what’s going on and the best way to proceed,” Bennett said. “Make sure your staff know that they do have a voice, and though not all suggestions can be implemented, that they’re at least being considered.”

Lowndes also described how employees are being kept in the loop about DC Water’s operating plans as they change.

“We are open and operating as normally as possible with some provisions to our operations and our mission. We’re telling people that we’re not closing, we’re just adjusting how we’re meeting our customers’ needs and communicating with each other.”

Frank recommended that utilities who do not already have a media spokesperson designate and train one as soon as possible. Concerns about water quality due to the coronavirus pandemic are bound to arise, he said. When performing public outreach activities, Frank advised that water professionals should stress that evidence suggests risks to water supplies related to coronavirus are low and the utility’s disinfection protocols are effective.

“Think about this as an opportunity to show your community that you’ve given this some serious thought. Even if you don’t think you have a message, you do, and it’s this: We’ve prepared for this,” Frank said.

Watch the full webcast:

Justin Jacques, WEF Highlights

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