covid-19

Health and safety concerns grow as PPE, fires and sickness threaten worker wellbeing

05 April 2020 | Melanie Mingas

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As those in the global carrier and data industries work to keep the world connected, there is concern around the ability to protect staff from a growing list of health and safety issues.

In the UK, telecommunications staff are classified as key workers with functions covering network operations, field engineering, call centre staff, IT and data infrastructure. This has seen team members working on a number of sites across the country including hospitals and other healthcare facilities, as they rapidly upgrade systems to meet demand during the pandemic.

Andrew Shilton, solutions director for MLL Telecom, said this is a particular point of concern.

“We’re sending engineers to hospitals at the moment and they need [additional] PPE to go on site. [Other contractors] have seen similar issues and there have been mixed messages coming down from management regarding our supplies. It’s a bit of a replication of some of the messaging we have heard from national government around the NHS [the UK's national health system].

“We are told this equipment is available but in practice it hasn’t been,” he said.

Shilton said that in many cases the healthcare workers themselves don’t even have the correct equipment, although he reported that things have started to improve over recent days.

He added: “It might be that the customer doesn’t have the equipment and I have seen people in hospitals working without it. Many are just working at risk at the moment.”

As reported by The Guardian last week, engineers in the UK are at further risk from “verbal and physical threats” as they work on 5G networks in various locations, following a rise in the spread of conspiracy theories around the technology.

The situation escalated significantly last week, with three separate arson incidents involving mobile phone masts in Birmingham, Liverpool and nearby Melling, Merseyside. There were no reported casualties and police investigations are ongoing.

Across the pond

As Data Economy reported, data centre operators in the UK have voiced concerns that access to sites may become more difficult if the country enters a full lock down. Meanwhile in the US, the classification of communications and information technology as “critical infrastructure” means engineers, data centre staff and others must keep working. As president Donald Trump stated: “You have a special responsibility to maintain your normal work schedule.”

In response, Atlanta-based Rob Plowden, partner at Eversheds Sutherland, has seen data centre clients implement procedural changes to help protect their facilities from the possibility of a Covid-19 outbreak on site.

Reporting his clients are in the “prepare and protect mode of responding to the outbreak”, Plowden said: “Because the effects started in the UK a few weeks before the US, the experience our UK colleagues are having is really my crystal ball because of where the UK is at in its outbreak.”

“The bigger concern is protecting staff. Although it’s a smaller staff they are receiving packages, allowing essential contractors to report in to perform critical maintenance work. In some cases, there is construction activity and essential staff are potentially in the same building as construction workers,” he said.

Data centre employees are exempt from shelter in place rules implemented in individual US states and cities. This means that every operator has had to designate essential employees and contractors and try to ensure each is issued with a letter from Homeland Security’s cyber agency, although Plowden reported that these “have been harder to get” recently.  

However, they are not exempt from social distancing, even on-site, and much of the procedural work undertaken by Plowden’s clients has focused on this.

“The effort has really been towards putting procedures in place that, to the extent possible, will isolate and contain the critical staff. For example, keep shift one away from shift two, keep them away from construction staff. They’re concentrating on those kinds of things, so we don’t have an outbreak in the facility,” Plowden said.

“Data centres are not exempt from the social distancing rules so we to keep that in mind. We’re making sure that they have the right personal protection equipment so we can reduce the chance they will get sick, then certainly limiting the number of who can come in and how they come in, so we don’t have people working on top of one another,” he continued.