Working Safely at Plants + Refineries during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Steve Bassine

How you can keep your employees safe while maintaining critical operations for your power plant or refinery during a pandemic

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The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Coronavirus (COVID-19) a global pandemic on March 11, 2020. One month later, there have been more than 1,000,000 cases confirmed with close to 50,000 deaths. With no signs of slowing down, companies are grappling with how to protect their employees and still perform critical operations.

As the war on COVID-19 unfolds, the value of a well-developed Pandemic Response Plan (PRP) is being fully realized. Some organizations are dusting off their Avian Flu (H5N1) plans and realizing that these plans may only be a starting point to reaffirm what operations are truly critical, and that stockpiles of critical personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning materials need to be re-evaluated. Other companies — including refineries and plants — are scrambling to come to terms with their unique risks and are developing response tactics to protect their employees and deliver critical products and services.

In an ideal world, a PRP should have been developed, and materials should have been stockpiled and exercised during normal conditions prior to an outbreak. Whether or not you have a PRP in place, all companies should evaluate and examine ongoing pandemic risks and vulnerability factors to provide management and employees with critical knowledge, proactive procedures and necessary resources.

PRPs should focus on establishing a safe work environment, minimizing the spread of the disease, continuing critical business operations and ensuring the financial viability of the company.

Key Safety Practices for Industrial Plants and Refineries during COVID-19

For businesses in the critical infrastructure sectors such as industrial plants and refineries, the protection of essential workers required to perform operations that cannot be performed remotely is particularly challenging. The original design of the workspace or the requirement to interact with the general public will demand creative solutions to protect workers from becoming infected from each other or from their interaction with the general public. Some key preventative practices to maximize personnel safety include:

  1. Redesign work areas and break rooms to promote social distancing. When social distancing is not possible, such as when two or more people are working on a piece of equipment or riding together, ensure that they wear N-95 masks during that time.
  2. Redesign the product/service delivery process to protect personnel and customers.
  3. Defer/suspend access to the facility by non-essential contract service workers.
  4. Reduce the number of entrances to minimize staffing requirements and support consistent screening processes.
  5. Require that all non-critical and critical staff personnel that can work from home remain at home.
  6. Perform remote screening (although some personnel may be asymptomatic), for all persons before their planned entry to the facility to potentially reduce exposure to others. This screening may consist of completion of a standardized questionnaire asking if the person has symptoms and/or has had potential exposure to others with flu-like symptoms.
  7. In addition to remote screening, companies can use digital thermometers at entry points and implement random temperature testing during the shift to detect sick persons more quickly. It is important to ensure that persons responsible for administering temperature checks are wearing appropriate PPE.
  8. Increase frequency of cleaning common touch items/areas (e.g. doorknobs, countertops, light switches, elevator buttons, handrails, timeclocks, restrooms, breakrooms, etc.) to twice per shift.
  9. All persons confirmed to have an elevated temperature should be denied entry and informed to go home and contact their health care provider for further instructions.
    • Sending them to a medical facility is not recommended unless directed by their physician.
    • Require that personnel with flu-like symptoms or reporting close contact to a person exhibiting flu-like symptoms self-quarantine for 14 days unless testing reveals that they don’t have the virus.
    • For personnel confirmed to have flu-like symptoms, initiate a close contact tracing process to determine others that may be exposed.
  10. Reduce the frequency of shift changes and isolate contacts between primary and alternate critical staff members to minimize the potential of infection of the entire team.

Best Practices if Someone is Sick

If someone reports feeling sick while on-site:

  • Activate a response team wearing appropriate PPE (gloves, mask, and face shield) to initiate the exit process and clear co-workers from the area. Provide a mask to the symptomatic person(s) and escort them to exit with instructions to contact their health care provider.
  • Move co-workers from the immediate area to an alternate work area so that personnel can continue to perform critical work if decontamination of the primary area is required. If critical operations require utilization of the potentially contaminated workspace, furnish PPE to the minimal required staff required to continue operations while the space is being decontaminated.
  • Execute a contact tracing process and monitor personnel who had contact. Require that any symptomatic person self-quarantine for 14 days before returning to work.
  • Ensure that HIPPA compliance is maintained.
  • Activate a decontamination team to clean the person’s work area, restroom, and other areas that the person may have visited that day. Decontaminate the area using EPA approved cleaning materials, procedures and PPE. Once decontamination is complete, obtain certification from an industrial hygienist prior to re-opening the area for use without PPE.

As required by law, many industrial facilities and refineries already have emergency response plans in place and have the management systems and infrastructure to handle a variety of emergencies. However, organizations face unique risks and challenges to keeping their people safe while continuing operations during this COVID-19 crisis. We develop procedures on how to respond immediately, and protect your employees, assets and property. Learn more about how to keep your employees, operations and reputation safe from COVID-19.

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