Leaders in the U.S. power industry recently lobbied local, state, and federal officials to prioritize their “mission-essential employees” and provide them with critical personal protective equipment (PPE) as the COVID-19 pandemic puts them at heightened risk.

The Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC) issued a white paper in early April, arguing that experienced energy sector professionals are a niche resource that is vital to regional and national infrastructure. In its four-page paper, the ESCC points out that these workers are part of an extremely limited workforce necessary for operating power plants. Without them, entire grids would be at risk, and losing electricity during the coronavirus outbreak would have dire consequences.

“There is a subset of highly skilled energy workers who are unable to work remotely and who 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,” the ESCC white paper reportedly states. “Our requests for testing and other priority needs for these workers (e.g., PPE, access to restricted areas, cleaning products) are informed by tracking the spread of COVID-19 across the country and in individual communities.”

Until the coronavirus spread caused businesses to close and residents to Shelter in Place, first responders, doctors, and nurses, among others, were thought of as “essential.” But everyday people are growing increasingly aware of the wide-reaching industries that buoy food, water, medicine, and industries such as energy.

What Power Occupations are Essential?

Officials who are unfamiliar with the inner workings of a power facility may have been taken aback by the ESCC document. That’s largely because few could have been even remotely aware that the energy sector rises and falls based on a relatively small group of highly trained and experienced professionals. These are positions the ESCC deems “mission-essential” and who require PPE access and prompt testing.

  • In Non-Nuclear Power Plants : Control room operators, technical advisors, and supervisors are highly specialized positions. This niche group usually works in confined spaces where a single infected party would result in an entire team testing positive for COVID-19. These professionals are neither interchangeable, nor can others be quickly trained.
  • In Nuclear Plants : Workers in these highly specialized facilities are rare and difficult to replace, even with extensive training. Mission-essential positions include licensed and unlicensed operators, supervisors, radiation technicians, armed security, and maintenance teams. According to the ESCC, “If any one of these positions goes unstaffed on a shift, a plant is at significant risk of triggering multiple Nuclear Regulatory Commission violations and a mandatory shutdown order from the federal government.”
  • In Electric Transmission and Distribution Plants : Control room supervisors, engineers, and operators are necessary to maintain grid integrity. The talent pool remains quite limited.
  • In Natural Gas Facilities : This specialized sector requires experts to maintain the flow of natural gas while identifying anomalies that present imminent risks. Natural gas distribution could be rendered unsafe without these professionals.

A recent article in Newsweek listed other energy sector occupations that have been deemed essential under federal and state guidelines. This extensive list also includes support personnel, cybersecurity experts, IT professionals, environmental remediation, and logistics staff members, among others.

COVID-19 Puts Unprotected Workers & Power Grids At Risk

According to the technology and energy media resource Power magazine, energy sector CEOs associated with the ESCC, as well as other industry professionals, outlined the urgency for getting mission-essential workers protective clothing and COVID-19 testing. The group pointed to the fallout when the coronavirus impacted key personnel. They highlighted the following examples.

  • One incident resulted in a generation unit being forced offline for 22 days after one person contracted COVID-19, and two others were required to self-quarantine for 14 days.
  • After a nuclear power plant IT engineer could not get promptly tested, another three were forced to self-quarantine, leaving the facility short-staffed for two weeks.
  • In a third example, one line worker tested positive for the coronavirus, and five others were forced to self-quarantine for 14 days.

“By design, and in adherence to federally mandated reliability and cybersecurity regulations, control rooms are closed quarters, with several people working in tight proximity for 8-12 hours per shift,” the ESCC paper reportedly stated. “These functions cannot be performed remotely. If one or more employees working a shift becomes infected, current guidance requires a 14-day quarantine of the entire shift, removing these operators from the workforce for at least two full weeks.”

To say that American power plants are at risk due to COVID-19 would be something of an understatement. Should the contagion spread inside facilities and infect the skilled professionals tasked with operational integrity and oversight, medical equipment, supermarkets, and other crucial support systems could falter.

What Type of PPE Do Mission-Essential Energy Workers Require?

A common thread that runs through many of these energy positions is that they work in relatively tight quarters. The experienced professionals tasked with energy oversight and functionality are typically in control rooms where the coronavirus can live, and contact transmission is likely. Panels are sometimes side-by-side, and mission-essential staff members are unable to practice CDC guidelines regarding social distancing.

The ESCC appears to have every reason to be concerned that people and power resources are at risk. That’s why this sector requires testing and a sufficient stockpile of protective clothing and reserves in the event COVID-19 persists. International Enviroguard has select protective clothing lines to protect this class of essential workers.

  • ViroGuard®: This line was uniquely designed to deter bloodborne pathogens from making skin contact. As a disposable protective clothing deterrent, it is considered highly durable and can be seamlessly accessorized with protective gloves and masks.
  • Microguard MP®: This coverall delivers enhanced contact protections with an attached hood. The elastic wrist, back, and ankle security increase safety. When donned with gloves, a mask, and disposable foot protections, energy sector professionals enjoy top-tier protection.
  • SMS: This three-layer disposable protective clothing line enjoys breathable material. It also can be utilized as a coverall with hood included.

There are a wide range of protective clothing products that can deliver improved safety measures for valued and necessary energy workers. Decision-makers would be wise to make PPE readily available and plentiful. The alternative could be power grids going offline.