Considered Essential, Utilities Sound Alarm on Worker Safety, Lack of COVID-19 Testing

Despite regular calls with government agencies, the electricity sector lacks a timeline for PPE access
A lineman from California works to restore power on Nov. 20, 2012, in Long Beach, N.Y. Utilities workers have been deemed essential personnel amid the coronavirus pandemic, but industry leaders expect shortages in personal protective equipment for the workforce. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
April 13, 2020 at 12:56 pm UTC

Energy, water and public works employees are all included on the Department of Homeland Security’s list of essential workers, placing many utilities professionals into the field as much of the rest of the country stays home during the coronavirus pandemic. And with stay-at-home orders in effect across the country, the importance of reliable utilities -- and the safety of workers in the sector -- is more heightened than ever.

Industry leaders, however, say their sectors have already seen or expect to see shortages of personal protective equipment for their employees, and they are worried that a lack of testing access will mean putting these critical workers at additional risk. And while the federal government has so far been receptive to their concerns, they say a timeline on protection or testing resources remains out of reach.

“The first responders and health care workers are the frontline workers that are critically important to making sure we get ahead of this and solve the medical issues,” said Todd Snitchler, president and chief executive of the Electric Power Supply Association. “But if the lights don’t stay on and the power isn’t delivered, they can’t do their work.” 

Snitchler said getting safety equipment and resources to utility workers has been a major topic of discussion since utility companies first began to discuss their response to the pandemic weeks ago. However, the sector is facing the same PPE shortages as health care workers and other essential employees. 

The urgency facing employees in the field was recently amplified , when New York energy company Consolidated Edison Inc. reported the first utility worker deaths connected to the virus, with 170 confirmed cases and three deaths as of the company’s report on April 3.  

Regina Davis, spokeswoman for the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, told Morning Consult that access to protective equipment for these workers is critical but also highlighted that access to testing for critical personnel is equally important, “especially for the smaller firms” where the loss of one highly specialized worker could alter operations entirely. 

Brandon Presley, board president for NARUC, said “every aspect of responding to the pandemic -- be it hospitals, public safety or workforce continuity of operations -- all depend on reliable utility systems.”

The Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council -- a group of industry chief executives that serves as a liaison between the federal government and the electric power sector -- has been holding twice-weekly calls with senior leadership of the nonprofit North American Electric Reliability Corporation and five federal agencies: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Departments of Energy, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services. 

Snitchler, who also serves as a member of the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council, said the federal agencies “absolutely understand the criticality of these requests.” However, the council has not been given a timeline for allocating additional PPE or conducting coronavirus testing for essential workers, though the industry remains “optimistic.”

Edison Electric Institute spokesman Brian Reil said the association’s major concern during the pandemic is protecting the small group of “highly skilled energy workers” who are unable to work remotely but are “mission-essential during this extraordinary time.”  

“While we understand the current limitations of COVID-19 testing, there is a critical need for a targeted approach -- endorsed by federal, state and local partners -- that ensures testing of these workers,” Reil said. 

And until they have access to PPE and testing resources, Snitchler said companies are taking it upon themselves to “find alternative solutions” and to collect and develop materials to prevent the spread of illness. 

“There are entities that are making their own hand sanitizer or cleaning solutions in order to make sure your control rooms are kept safe,” Snitchler said. “So it's not a question of merely waiting for the government to assist —  but we are certainly hoping that they can do that in a timely fashion.” 

Meanwhile, water utilities are facing similar challenges. From March 25-30, the American Water Works Association surveyed member utilities and other sector organizations and found that 59 percent of water utilities are either currently having issues accessing PPE or anticipate issues within the next month, up from 33 percent in a March 10-16 survey of the same group. 

And over half of the respondents anticipate that workforce absenteeism due to the coronavirus pandemic will impact operations in the coming months. Eleven percent responded that absenteeism is currently affecting operations, while 44 percent responded that they anticipate an impact in the next month or more. But nearly all respondents (97 percent) have contingency plans to continue essential field and plant operations.

The poll surveyed 532 unique utilities and includes 81 non-utility responses (from consultants, manufacturers and related) and has a margin of error of 4 percentage points. 

The Department of Energy and the DHS Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency declined to comment for this story.

Lisa Martine Jenkins previously worked at Morning Consult as a senior reporter covering energy and climate change.

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