Electric cooperative managers who oversee safety and training are preparing co-ops for the uncertainty of serving consumer-members even after the immediate coronavirus threat abates.

“This pandemic gives every CEO and manager an opportunity to evaluate how everybody does their job,” said Gerald Gordon, vice president of safety and loss prevention for the Electric Cooperatives of Mississippi. “We still do a lot of jobs the same way we did them in the 1980s because no one has ever asked, ‘Is this still the best way to do this?’”

Gordon says remote connectivity and other changes in technology give co-ops the option of using a combination of office and off-site work periods to meet production demands and limit congestion in the workplace.

“We’ve been doing this for weeks in many areas and perhaps this should continue even after the pandemic threat subsides,” Gordon said.

He and other co-op managers have discussed loading some vehicles a day ahead of time so lineworkers and others arriving early can clear yards and loading docks before other crews arrive.

“Do we need all of these people crammed in here every day, or everybody reporting to one spot every morning?” asked Gordon. “We do things over and over the same way because they've been successful in the past. This is an opportunity to analyze all of that.”

Examining Operations

At East Kentucky Power Cooperative, as employees begin returning to offices, managers are considering turning some hallways into one-way areas, marking 6-foot separation intervals and allowing only one person in the breakroom at a time, said Mike Willoughby, the co-op’s safety, security and facilities manager.

“These are a few of the things we are considering, at least for our headquarters building where 95% of employees are currently working from home,” he said.

The Winchester, Kentucky-based generation and transmission cooperative employees are among tens of thousands now at the beginning stages of relaunching activities at offices and other facilities vacated when pandemic response precautions were invoked in March.

Phased returns, already underway in some states, could become more common in the weeks ahead, with co-ops and other employers closely following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health officials.

Those include stepping up sanitation in common areas; requiring body temperature checks before letting employees into buildings; and staggering arrivals, departures and on-site occupancy periods to limit contacts.

Help Close By

COVID-19 pandemic concerns already are influencing how co-ops respond to major outages and will likely impact summer work plans for construction and maintenance.

“More co-ops are looking to close-by assistance and offering help with the understanding that crews can return to their home territories every night, so they don’t have to stay in hotels,” said Bud Branham, NRECA’s director of safety programs.

Missouri’s 47 co-ops have received a coronavirus mutual aid operations personnel checklist.

“We’ve recommended that when mutual aid work has to be done, host co-ops try to disperse some essential activities with a goal of reducing contacts between their crews, contractors and visiting crews,” said Rob Land, vice president for risk management and training for the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives. “In some cases, materials can be stacked in a separate section of a pole yard, or you could transport poles and materials to a remote location and crews could pick them up there.”

Training for the Future

COVID-19 pandemic concerns are also being addressed by those charged with training the next generation of line technicians and providing in-service training and certification for co-op personnel.

At the Central Ohio Lineworker Training (COLT) Facility in Mt. Gilead, 30 miles north of Columbus, several protective measures were implemented in the early weeks of the pandemic.

“Students have to remain in their personal vehicles for health screening and temperature checks before entering the building,” said Dwight Miller, director of safety, training and loss prevention for Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives. “Each student now has their own table, spaced according to CDC guidelines of 6-foot social distancing, and hand sanitizer is available at each student worksite.”

COLT also requires use of surgical-quality face masks during any procedures or training when social distancing guidelines aren’t practical. The guidelines are mandatory and monitored by instructors.

Students are encouraged to forego direct contact after hours, eat only carryout meals, and take personal responsibility for cleaning and disinfecting their hotel rooms.

“We’re urging students to keep ’Do Not Disturb’ signs on their doors for the week, so cleaning staff will not enter the room and possibly spread contamination,” Miller said.