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Utilities Aim To Keep Specially-Trained Employees Healthy And Working

Clay Masters
Essential staff are isolating on-site and sleeping in campers parked outside the Des Moines Water Works Fleur Drive Treatment Plant in Des Moines, Iowa.

In normal times, people can take for granted essential services like water and electricity in their homes. What’s even more critical during this pandemic is the health of these skilled workers who keep these key services going. Some utilities are taking steps to keep their staff from getting sick with coronavirus, which includes locking employees in at work.  

There are ten campers parked outside the Des Moines Water Works treatment facility in Des Moines, Iowa, where a skeleton crew of operators are doing things like running the control centers and taking tests of the water.

“At our three treatment plants, we have a total of 21 people who will be living on-site 24/7 in those campers that we’ve placed,” said the utility’s interim CEO Ted Corrigan.

The utility provides drinking water for more than a half-million customers and Corrigan said they’re deeper into their contagious disaster plan than ever before.

“But the treatment process is unchanged. It's unaffected by what's going on and it is very effective against viruses to be sure,” Corrigan said.

Kyle Danley heads water production for Des Moines Water Works. He’s part of the crew that’s putting in at least 12 hours a day before leaving the facility and walking to his isolated camper for the night.

He said while some of the workers aren’t used to camper life the utility can’t take the risk that they get sick.

“We’re in a specialty field there’s always a shortage of operators throughout the country, trying to get people interested in this field,” Danley said. “But It’s certainly is something that takes months and years to be able to get those licenses needed. And then just even if you have a license, every plan is specific.”

After two weeks, a new group of workers with the same set of skills who are currently sitting at home will switch with the current on-site crew. Something similar is happening at a desalination plant in Carlsbad, Calif., that produces 50 million gallons of water a day. Ten workers are living there for three weeks at a time.

“These are critical services highly trained individuals not easy replaceable so they have to be protected to ensure that Water continues to flow,” said San Diego County Water Authority General Manager Sandy Kerl.

It’s not just water utilities locking staff in at work. Some power companies have already gone to some form of shelter-in-place at power plants in order to keep the lights on.  

“These are the types of systems that take skilled people constant attention to keep them running and we forget about them,” said Natalie Simpson, who teaches Operations Management and Strategy at the University at Buffalo.

Simpson says these utilities that we all rely on aren’t automated to the extent that they can run on their own.

“They run smoothly and uninterrupted from day to day, because they're constantly being tended by human beings, skilled human beings who are making decisions from one moment to the next,” Simpson said.

Imagine if today water, power or internet just shut off.  It’s a reminder how essential it is to keep these skilled workers healthy during this pandemic.

Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter.