Water and wastewater utilities face a variety of potential threats that could affect both employee health and continued operation for the communities that depend on provided services.

While an emergency response plan is already required by America’s Water Infrastructure Act (AWIA), the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic highlights challenges that many utilities had to respond to with emergency measures. For utilities with a lean staff, emergency situations highlight how important cross-training on crucial operational procedures is.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released an Incident Action Checklist – Pandemic Incidents to assist utilities with creating a plan for the current crisis and any other future pandemics. Staff are a crucial component of water and wastewater system resilience, and the checklist aims to make employee health the top priority. While the EPA notes that there is little likelihood of transmitting COVID-19 via drinking water, a pandemic poses other real challenges, such as staff shortages, supply chain disruptions and employee social distancing obstacles that could make continued operation difficult.

Pandemic Resilience Plans

Motivated by previous major disease outbreaks, some utilities created pandemic resilience plans as a guide to staff. If that was not already in place, often the first step in creating a plan calls for communication with key utility staff to determine future best practices. Actions of the past several months amid the COVID-19 pandemic can be examined to identify improvement areas.

The EPA recommends a variety of ways utilities can plan for a pandemic. A Pandemic Response Team can develop processes and strategies for maintaining awareness of the changing situation, as well as initiate response actions based on continuing operations. Utilities will also need to develop a plan to fill critical staff positions, in the event that a key staff member becomes ill, to continue water and wastewater services. For utilities with a single certified operator, it is imperative to plan for their absence.

Protecting Employee Health

A good place to start is to assess your system’s Information and Operational Technology capabilities to be confident it can accommodate remote work arrangements without compromising security.

Additionally, the EPA’s checklist encourages protecting employee health by closing utility lobbies and offices to the public, modifying travel arrangements for field crews and practicing social distancing when possible. During the current pandemic, some utilities took the extra step to prepare for staff shortages. These measures included stocking up on food and increasing access to beds and medical supplies for staff to effectively live at the utility in the event other employees became sick and were unable to switch off for shifts.

EPA’s checklist also encourages utilities to develop and implement a policy for screening employees for symptoms, setting up extended sick leave and increasing telework to reduce the potential for disease spreading through staff. Like other businesses and consumers, utilities also experienced a supply chain disruption in personal protective equipment (PPE) for employees to use. Part of preparing a plan for future pandemics should include preparing for the availability of PPE for staff, such as face masks, hand sanitizer and other disinfecting products. Utilities are also encouraged to create an inventory of essential materials, chemicals, supplies and equipment that are critical for ongoing operations and continue communication with these suppliers.

While utilities may not be able to prepare for every type of emergency, the pandemic offers an opportunity to improve processes for future emergencies, establishing plans intended to protect both staff’s health and provide for continued water and wastewater services. The EPA’s Incident Action Checklist can serve as initial framework for establishing a pandemic resilience plan.

 

AWIA regulates risk and resiliency compliance requirements to prepare water and wastewater utilities to address a variety of threats. Discover how to prepare your utility and become AWIA-compliant.

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Sarah Tuite is a project manager at Burns & McDonnell. She focuses on municipal water supply and treatment. Sarah has completed the AWWA Utility Risk & Resilience Certificate Program.