WSJ Spotlights Sequestration Efforts

By David Bertola

The following article about National Grid’s sequestration efforts was published in the Wall Street Journal, which used the photo below as its lead image. The photo was from an earlier story published at this website about Dave Martin running a marathon in the control center parking lot.

To Avoid Coronavirus Risks, 
These People Live Where They Work
Utility stations, a missile-defense squad and other employers sequester staffers to keep operating

 

By Austen Hufford
May 18, 2020
7:47 ET

Phil Lavallee walked into work on March 23. He walked out on Friday.

Mr. Lavallee worked for 54 days straight as the director of National Grid PLC’s transmission control center in Massachusetts, without leaving the premises. He is one of about 400 National Grid employees who have lived at the utility’s job sites for weeks this spring to keep energy grids running during the coronavirus pandemic and minimize the risk of importing the contagion from their homes and communities.

While much of America has stayed home for two months, workers from bus drivers to grocery-store stockers and some manufacturing employees have continued reporting to their workplaces. That has exposed some to heightened risk of infection, and prompted employers to add procedures and protective gear to minimize the risk of local outbreaks.

Among the more extreme strategies that employers have tried is sequestering staffers at work. A desalination center in Carlsbad, Calif., a Braskem SA BAK 12.78% plant in Marcus Hook, Pa., that makes a polymer used in face masks, and a National Guard missile-defense contingent in Colorado Springs, Colo., have all housed employees on or near job sites as they keep vital operations going without risking infections on their premises.

“It’s not an easy call to make, to say: ‘You can’t go home to your family and friends,’ ” said U.S. Army Sgt. Nadia Carter, who is temporarily living away from home with four other missile-defense crew members in Colorado. “You do what you have to do for your brothers and sisters next to you.”

Workers who are staying at the office say it takes a toll.

“At the end of 30 days you can see it in people’s eyes. They are shot,” said Mr. Lavallee, who said he worked 12 hours on, 12 hours off for the duration of his stint at the plant. “You are ready to go home.”

National Grid decided to have employees live on-site in mid-March as the number of coronavirus cases surged in areas including New York state. With around three employees needed to work each of the company’s control centers, an outbreak could quickly cripple operations, said John Spink, who oversaw the on-site housing at roughly eight sites, which can each contain multiple control rooms. He finished his own weekslong sequestration at a site in upstate New York earlier this month.

“We just can’t let the power grid go down. It’s just not an option,” Mr. Spink said.

When Mr. Lavallee asked for 10 volunteers to live at the facility in Worcester County that controls power lines in about 60% of Massachusetts and all of Rhode Island, many more than were needed raised a hand. Within 10 days the workers moved in.

Logistics had to be hashed out quickly: Where would employees sleep? How would they eat? Unlike remote mines or offshore oil rigs, National Grid’s transmission center in Worcester County wasn’t set up for employees to sleep on-site.

National Grid rented about two dozen camper trailers for living quarters, as well as trailers containing showers and laundry machines. It hired a food-services provider to prepare three meals a day for the roughly 80 workers staying at the Massachusetts site at one time, and cooks lived on the premises too. Employees lived two to a recreational vehicle: one on the day shift, one on the night shift. Some conference rooms were converted into sleeping quarters.

Entertainment was another challenge. At one New York site, a dad working at the station gave tips to his child practicing the violin outside. Families visited sequestered loved ones, speaking through a gate, and a Girl Scout troop made a contact-free cookie delivery to Mr. Spink’s facility.

“There isn’t a lot to do after work,” Mr. Spink said. “You can walk around the compound.”

A second group of National Grid employees relieved the initial crews. With more time to pack, they were better prepared to occupy themselves off the job.

Employees at the Massachusetts site organized a cornhole tournament, and crowned a winner of the bean-bag-tossing event last week. They also brought basketball hoops, a croquet set and golf clubs.

On Easter Sunday, a local band performed. “It was better than sitting in the conference room all day long,” Mr. Lavallee said.

Dave Martin, a shift supervisor, started running around the site’s parking lot early one morning in April. He had been scheduled to run the Boston Marathon that day and had raised $8,000 for charity. After the marathon was postponed until September, he decided to run the 26.2 miles in the parking lot.

When co-workers woke up and realized what he was doing, they created a makeshift finish line. He finished in around four-and-a-half hours.

Mr. Lavallee, who left the station on Friday, said he is looking forward to seeing his grandchildren. He missed two of their birthdays while living at the center.

He added that he will be back at work on Monday, when National Grid plans to enter a new operational phase. Employees will be allowed to return home at night and will be split into two groups, one at each control center and another at backup locations for those sites.

Mr. Lavallee stayed at the facility more than seven weeks, while his crew changed out halfway through.

“If, God forbid, we ever had to do this again, I would set it up so that somebody never spends more than three-and-a-half weeks on-site,” he said. “It’s a tough road to go down.”

Write to Austen Hufford at austen.hufford@wsj.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *