Throughout the entire COVID-19 global pandemic, there isn't a single business or operation that has not felt an impact. Some entities could easily adjust to social distancing and other guidance, but that is not the case when it comes to the water sector.
"Utilities can't stop, work from home, or temporarily close doors," said Brent Herring, Wastewater Treatment Division Manager for KC Water in Kansas City, Missouri. "Water is essential, and so are the workers who keep our water safe. We have been working through these unprecedented times to keep the water flowing and waterways clean while not sacrificing a safe working environment for employees."
KC Water is a municipal water utility whose approximately 850 associates are responsible for water, wastewater, and stormwater over a 320-square-mile area. Herring's division of about 130 associates operate six wastewater treatment plants, 44 pump stations, and a 1,350-acre biosolids land application facility.
"Although it is a large group of people, our system and facilities provide appropriate spacing by default in the execution of day-to-day tasks," Herring said. "Our facilities and our service area is large, and it isn't difficult to ensure employees are appropriately spaced."
KC Water adheres closely to already-strict wastewater treatment guidelines of OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as new COVID-19 guidelines of Missouri and Kansas City.
"In our treatment plants, use of masks as appropriate with other PPE have been a longstanding practice," Herring said. "We made minor changes to schedules, so we've been able to accommodate the professionals."
In such an unprecedented time, leadership at KC Water know physical safety is important, but concerns go deeper than that.
"One of the biggest issues to manage is people's anxiety," Herring said. "These are uncertain times and not something anyone has previously experienced. Everyone has concerns: their job, their family, their neighbors, and their future."
In such an unprecedented time with concerns at a high, KC Water employees are protected and can feel confident in coming to work each day.
"Like many first responders, treatment plant operators and related staff were required to come to work," Herring said. "Utilities do not get a pass from being in compliance with the usual state and federal treatment regulations. This is serious and we are going to follow the rules."
He added, "We are continuing to assure employees that we have recommended practices in place and good guidance to know what these are, and we believe these practices are appropriate for the threat."
To put staff members at ease, KC Water continues an open door culture. It has fostered teamwork, reinforced confidence, and is setting the standard for utility communication. Associates are encouraged to ask questions and to speak with their supervisors if they have any concern.
"That is how we keep everyone safe, and we are not willing to budge on that," he said. "Keeping employees safe is our top priority, with or without a pandemic."
One aspect of the current pandemic for wastewater utilities is the survivability of the virus in biowaste. Herring said current PPE and safety procedures are designed to protect workers against any pathogen.
The belief of some health scientists is that checking wastewater streams may help detect and manage COVID-19 outbreaks, a process characterized by one EPA scientist as "a community swab." Currently scientists are continuing their research to determine the appropriate methods to obtain firm data on basic issues, such as how long the virus can survive in a wastewater stream.
With studies so closely connected to water treatment, KC Water leadership keeps abreast of ongoing industry research.
"While this is a topic of intense study, the investigations continue to determine the current status," Herring said. "It will change, but it goes back to staying current and sharing information as is becomes available."
The COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for everyone in a multitude of ways. KC Water is a strong example of how utilities in the water and wastewater industry are continuing to serve communities with uncompromising safety protocols and compassion for employees, too. Though often unrecognized, utilities like KC Water are at the hearts of our communities.