Pandemic playbook: Water utility gets MUSC help to protect employees and public

August 04, 2020
Back2Business sign at Mount Pleasant Waterworks
A sign tells customers at Mount Pleasant Waterworks that the utility has worked with MUSC Health to protect customers and employees. Photos provided

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, there was never a question of whether Mount Pleasant Waterworks would shut down.

“Our water and wastewater treatment facilities have to run 24/7, especially in light of a pandemic where one of the hallmark recommendations is frequent handwashing and personal hygiene,” said Brian Head, the utility’s technical services manager. “People have to have clean water and sanitary sewer systems. It’s absolutely critical.”

So Mount Pleasant Waterworks signed up with MUSC Health’s Back2Business program. Back2Business, created to help organizations run as safely as possible during the pandemic, sent in a team of public health experts to analyze operations, make recommendations and create a playbook with detailed instructions to guide decision-making.

“The pandemic raised questions we’d never faced before, trying to determine policies and procedures,” Head said. “That was the beauty of having MUSC there to provide expert guidance from a health professional standpoint. That was absolutely critical to us being able to respond correctly.”

The Back2Business team began with a site assessment, walking through Mount Pleasant Waterworks’ facilities. Head was worried about employees in essential roles. “We have people who are licensed to treat water and wastewater and repair our distribution and collection systems. If we ended up getting short-staffed in those areas, that could be very problematic.”

Sign at Mount Pleasant Waterworks that says Entrance Only 
Mount Pleasant Waterworks limits the number of people who can be in this meeting room based on advice from MUSC Health's Back2Business team.

So protecting them is a top priority. “Those areas were analyzed very closely, and then we put in additional measures to make sure we isolated those individuals and mitigated risk to the greatest extent possible.”

Another concern: how to help employees who normally ride together in service trucks practice social distancing. “One of the recommendations that came out was single-person occupancy in vehicles. We were able to relax that later with the use of personal protective equipment,” Head said.

The Back2Business team also looked at more traditional workspaces such as cubicles, meeting rooms and break rooms and made recommendations about social distancing, cleaning and limiting the number of people in each area.

Then, it was all summed up in a document. “We got a 156-page playbook that was sent to us. It’s pretty robust,” Head said. “Every department has an overall exposure risk rating from high to low. Associated with each of those are the recommended PPE requirements for each group. It’s a really handy reference guide to determine what level of protection each person needs to take.”

The playbook also has return-to-work guidelines, travel policies for employees, information about testing for COVID-19 and antibodies from the virus, temperature monitoring, how to meet safely with contractors and more.

Mount Pleasant Waterworks was the first public utility to work with the Back2Business team. Several more are now planning to follow suit. Back2Business project manager Ryan Taylor said it’s been fascinating working with them. 

“The neat thing about Mount Pleasant Waterworks is that the type of work they do requires them to be very detail oriented. I’ve appreciated the seriousness with which they take infection prevention implementation.”

Taylor said other businesses could learn from Mount Pleasant Waterworks’ emphasis not only on dealing with the pandemic now but also looking toward the future. “We provided antibody testing when Back2Business first partnered with Mount Pleasant Waterworks to set a baseline for employee exposure within their facility. They’ve requested a second round of antibody testing to help analyze if there have been any groupings of exposures within their different departments. This will help us know if we need to modify any of our risk mitigation strategies.

“They’re also pursuing biometric screening so that they can identify any high-risk employees and adjust how and when those employees interact with their co-workers and customers. And they want to schedule flu shots as early as possible in the flu season to help decrease the chances of their employees getting sick with the flu and COVID at the same time.”

Head said he’s proud to post a sign from the Back2Business program at Mount Pleasant Waterworks, which states that the business has completed MUSC Health training for customer and employee safety.

“It conveys that this organization is really serious about its response and serious about the safety of everyone involved because we went to the extent of getting this certification, training our staff and putting a plan in place that mitigates risk to the greatest extent possible.”

About the Author

Helen Adams

Keywords: COVID-19