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Here’s how Australian water utilities are responding to COVID-19

Water utilities are taking steps to ensure the continued supply of water and wastewater services, as confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Australia surpass 1000.

Globally, there are more than 336,000 cases of the novel coronavirus, which was first detected in Wuhan, China, in December. Australia currently has 1098 confirmed cases and seven people have died. 

While there is no evidence to suggest drinking water is affected by the virus, measures to contain the outbreak such as social distancing require adjustments to business-as-usual practices.  

With the situation changing rapidly, SA Water General Manager of Customers, Strategy and Innovation Anna Jackson said it is vital for the utility to work closely with the state government.

“We’ve had an incident management team looking at this for a number of weeks now, [working with] the Department of Health and other key emergency agencies,” she said.

“That’s been really helpful in terms of guiding our response to ensure we can maintain continuity of service for our customers, and also to keep our staff healthy and as well as possible during this situation.”

SA Water has temporarily closed its walk-in service centre in Adelaide and a large percentage of staff have been working from home since Monday last week, including some in customer service roles. This means people who are not able to work remotely can spread out, helping the business follow social distancing guidelines.

The utility was able to move to remote working very quickly thanks to its shift to a digital, paperless business three years ago.  

“For example, our customer advocacy team is all working from home but they’re still able to record customer calls and they can do video calls with customers,” Jackson said.

“That’s allowed us to still have that contact face-to-face with people without putting anybody at unnecessary risk.”

Measures are also in place to protect employees working in the field. This includes keeping crews separate, so if one team is forced to self-isolate (for example, if a team member contracts the virus or comes into contact with a confirmed case) the other teams can continue working. 

“It is an evolving situation for everybody at the moment,” Jackson said.

“Obviously we’re not the only ones who are trying to work through this; everyone, not just nationally but on a global scale, is trying to grapple with how to maintain field and action services in these circumstances.

“The best we can do as leaders is keep on top of changes and help interpret them for our workforce as quickly as possible."

TasWater has also closed its shopfronts to help reduce exposure for both customers and staff.

"We are relying on expert medical and scientific advice and basing all decisions relating to our response to the COVID-19 virus on this,” TasWater CEO Michael Brewster said.

"We are also closely monitoring our work crews so staff are available for emergency callouts at all hours.

"An incident team is in place at TasWater, and it will work with any broader emergency management programs set up by state or federal government authorities.”

Queensland bulk water supplier Seqwater’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak has included restricting access to its sites and control centres to essential staff only. 

“Seqwater is proactively managing this situation, taking an approach that is aligned with our values: integrity, respect, care and courage,” a statement on its website reads.

“We have taken steps to protect our staff, particularly those who are critical to our day-to-day operations and will continue to focus on continuity of supply.”

Seqwater also put out a message to suppliers and contractors requesting firms follow its protocols on entering sites and hygiene, and said it expects all meetings to be done electronically.

“From time to time access is required for the delivery of important goods (e.g. chemicals), maintenance or construction crews undertaking work onsite,” the statement said.

“We also have some people working in non-operational areas as contractors, consultants or as temporary staff.

“We expect these firms to take similar measures to protect their own workers and ensure none of their workers attend a Seqwater site (operational or otherwise) if they are unwell, have travelled overseas in the past 14 days or believe they have come into contact with a person who may be exposed to the COVID-19 virus. 

“[These] measures are an important part of our overall plan for the safety and wellbeing of our staff members, and the continuation of essential services for the people of South East Queensland through this pandemic.”

For more information on COVID-19, visit the Department of Health website.