© 2024 Ideastream Public Media

1375 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44115
(216) 916-6100 | (877) 399-3307

WKSU is a public media service licensed to Kent State University and operated by Ideastream Public Media.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Utilities Aim To Keep Specially Trained Employees Healthy And Working


In this country, millions of Americans can follow advice to stay at home so long as the electricity stays on and the water and the phone service. Utility workers need to keep moving about. And to stay on the job, they also need to stay safe. Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters reports that some utilities are taking extraordinary measures, including locking in employees at work.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: I'm standing next to Fleur Drive, which leads into downtown Des Moines. And normally, this is a pretty busy road. It's not right now because, well, a lot of businesses are shut down. And right next to it is the Des Moines Water Works treatment facility. And what's different about the grounds right now is that there are 10 campers just parked out front on the lawn.

TED CORRIGAN: At our three treatment plants, we have a total of 21 people who will be living onsite 24/7 in those campers that we've placed.

MASTERS: That's Ted Corrigan. He's the interim CEO for the Des Moines Water Works that provides drinking water for more than half a million customers. He says they've gone deeper into their contagious disease response plan than ever before.

CORRIGAN: But the treatment process is unchanged. It's unaffected by what's going on. And it is very effective against viruses, to be sure.

MASTERS: Behind the tall, barbed wire fence, a skeleton crew of operators is doing things like running the control centers and testing the water. Kyle Danley heads water production here. 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 says while some of the workers aren't used to camper life, the utility can't take the risk that they get sick. And he says most of the jobs require unique skills and licenses.

KYLE DANLEY: We're in a specialty field. There's always a shortage of operators throughout the country, trying to get people interested in this field, but it 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 plant is specific.

MASTERS: 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 onsite 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. Sandy Kerl is general manager for the San Diego County Water Authority.

SANDY KERL: These are critical services, highly trained individuals, not easily replaceable, so they have to be protected to ensure that water continues to flow.

MASTERS: 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. Natalie Simpson teaches operations management and strategy at the University at Buffalo.

NATALIE SIMPSON: These are the types of systems that take skilled people, constant attention to keep them running. And we forget about them.

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

SIMPSON: 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.

MASTERS: Imagine if today your water, power or Internet just shut off. That should tell you how essential it is to keep these skilled workers healthy during this pandemic.

For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIGNAL HILL'S "A SERIES OF TRILLS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter. He was part of a team of member station political reporters who covered the 2016 presidential race for NPR. He also covers environmental issues.