Are energy sector employers doing enough to ensure resilience during the COVID-19 crisis?

Sue Ferns · 24 March 2020

The world is facing an unprecedented global health emergency as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the likes of which have not been seen in at least a century.

The impact is being felt right across our society and our economy, and governments are scrambling to shore up national health systems, and to ensure that critical national infrastructure like energy supply systems can continue to function.

In the UK, energy sector employers are preparing contingency measures to make sure the lights stay on during these difficult times. But, is enough being done, and are employers properly balancing the safety of staff with the need to keep energy flowing?

As the union for engineers and specialists working in the energy industry, we polled our members on the resilience measures their employers are putting in place in response to COVID-19, and the results merit attention.

The survey, which garnered more than 1,000 responses from people working across the energy supply industry, showed that less than half of respondents (only 48%) were confident in the resilience measures that their employers were putting in place.

In the electricity distribution networks, the figures were disturbingly low, with less than one in four respondents at some DNOs expressing confidence in their employer’s resilience planning. A significant proportion remain unaware of what has been put in place, which is troubling.

Encouragingly, 80% of respondents said their employer was reducing non-essential travel, and 71% said they were enabling working from home. But, less than half of respondents (46%) said their employer was taking adequate steps to reduce physical contact in the workplace, and only 5% said there were plans to halt non-essential capital projects.

While Ofgem has appropriately emphasised the need to maintain supply, in particular for vulnerable customers, the reality is that this will only happen if action is taken now to minimise the spread of the disease in workplaces and to ensure critical functions are kept adequately resourced.  76% of our respondents considered that control rooms were particularly at risk from staff shortages and 82% that this was the case for field operations.

Many respondents were also unsure about the adequate provision of essential personal protective equipment (PPE) in their workplace. In response to a question on PPE shortages, only 41% said there were currently no shortages, while 14% said there were, and 45% said they were unsure if there were shortages.

While the scale of need is small compared with the NHS, it is essential that staff required to enter domestic properties accommodating people in self-isolation or actually unwell have the correct PPE at their disposal.

Some other clear messages from the survey included a strong call by respondents for much clearer communication from their employer about contingency planning, and more decisive action to improve social distancing measures at work. Many respondents were also concerned that poor IT infrastructure would make working at home challenging for many staff.

These findings should be a wake-up call to the energy industry. One indisputable fact is that ‘business as usual’ practices will not get us through this crisis. Employers across the sector – supported by the regulator – must take action to ensure they can keep the lights on, whilst also protecting staff health and limiting the spread of the virus.

Prospect is calling on all employers to actively engage with us and other unions around contingency planning and to ensure clear and timely communication with staff about the measures being put in place. We must see more concerted efforts to ensure adequate PPE and sanitation supplies across all workplaces.

I have also today written to Ofgem’s Chief Executive to press for a suspension of DNO licence conditions to support the companies and their workforces to cope effectively and safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By working together we can get through this crisis – but employers must recognise the gravity of the situation and abandon business as usual.

Sue Ferns is the deputy general secretary of Prospect Union.

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