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OCC Response to Infectious Diseases

While best practices are industry wide, how and to what degree they are implemented depend on the individual operator. NuGen Automation has designed a degreed approach to implementing best practices for control rooms amid COVID-19 to help operators assess their current situation and determine the best practices to implement moving forward.

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The COVID-19 respiratory illness has impacted the oil and gas industry in many ways, the most publicized being a drop in oil prices and the subsequent impact to operators as production is threatened by a shortage of product storage options and a decrease in product demand. But the pandemic has reached into more personal spaces of some operators’ companies: the control center. Traditional control center designs have multiple controllers working side by side in open rooms, sharing spaces and equipment, and staying in confined spaces for up to 12 hours at a time. It’s less than ideal considering the dangers posed by close contact during the COVID-19 crisis.

The greatest threat to control centers is exposure. Due to the proximity of controllers in traditionally designed control centers, infectious diseases can spread rapidly from one person to the next, reaching other personnel within a matter of hours. This is a constant concern even outside of the COVID-19 situation.

Flu season encompasses nearly six months of each year, traditionally spiking in late winter. Similar to the mechanisms at work behind COVID-19, influenza is spread via droplets when people cough, sneeze, or talk and can contaminate surfaces. When shared surfaces are contaminated or people work in close quarters, the chances of becoming infected rise dramatically. Unlike with COVID-19, a vaccine exists for the flu; however, that option often gives people a false sense of safety when it comes to contracting an infectious disease. According to the CDC, the flu vaccine is effective in 40-60% of cases. That means that people who are vaccinated during a flu season are roughly half as likely to contract the flu as those who were not vaccinated. In other words, it’s not a guarantee.

This isn’t to say that getting vaccinated or taking additional precautions is not effective. Vaccines like those for flu can minimize the severity of an illness if its contracted, leading to less severe symptoms and faster recovery times. Research has also shown that getting vaccinated for the flu has in some cases prevented people from contracting the virus and continues to greatly reduce the number of cases and associated treatments globally. But if a vaccine isn’t guaranteed to be an end-all solution to an infectious disease like influenza, what does that mean when it comes to COVID-19?

In short, it means oil and gas operators must be honest with themselves about the threat of infectious disease in their control rooms and be prepared to take action when that threat becomes a reality, especially in cases like COVID-19 where the time to act is immediate. When considering how to best accommodate controllers and associated personnel while maintaining safe and secure operations, it’s important to not only understand the dangers that face a control center environment but the best practices of avoiding them and the levels of implementation for each practice. With this in mind, operators can assess the threat they face, their needs as a control center, and the best plan to work safely through an infectious disease crisis like COVID-19.  

Dangers of Exposure

As stated above, the greatest threat to a control center is exposure, which can bring about any level of consequence. Depending on the illness involved, exposure might be minimal and allow other control center personnel to avoid being infected; however, as in the case of COVID-19, not only is that an unlikely scenario, it is not one worth risking. When evaluating the risk of exposure, it is important to consider two factors: the likelihood of infection across personnel and the consequences of infection.

Many people have compared COVID-19 with seasonal influenza, and they do have similarities in how they are transmitted. However, research believe that COVID-19 might be spread as an airborne illness in addition to through contact with surfaces or immediate exposure. This means that infected droplets remain in the air and spread the disease to others after the ill person has left the area. In this case, COVID-19 is more contagious than the flu. When dealing with a contagious disease, a single infected control room employee has the capability to infect as many people as he or she encounters throughout a shift. It is not a one-to-one ratio. All it takes is one employee coming in with a cough to spread an illness through an entire shift of workers.

The consequences of infection are also a significant factor for control center operators to consider. In the case of COVID-19, the illness is considered severe enough to warrant not only quarantine of symptomatic employees but self-isolation of those exposed to the infected individual. In other words, only one controller might be symptomatic, but all control room personnel who have been exposed to that individual will need to self-isolate as well. If half of an operator’s control room staff are self-isolating at home, operations are quickly and severely affected as a result with very little time for response.

Best Practices

When it comes to addressing COVID-19 and infectious diseases in the control center, best practices aim at two aspects of safety: limiting exposure and providing resources. When combined, these two practices decrease the potential for exposure and arm personnel with necessary protocols, tools, and knowledge to assess their own situations and make changes accordingly.

Limiting the exposure of controllers to potentially infected surfaces and people is the simplest method for denying an infectious disease access to a control center. This can be accomplished a number of different ways, but the severity of the current COVID-19 crisis dictates that some degree of separation must exist between key control center personnel and other staff. By reducing exposure of personnel, operators are reducing the likelihood of the virus spreading throughout the company.

While limiting exposure is crucial, operators must also provide resources to assist control center staff in maintaining their work environment and understanding new protocols and the reasoning behind them. Resources can come in the form of disinfectant equipment such as alcohol wipes or be provided as dedicated restrooms where only control center staff are allowed. To help control center personnel abide by best practices, it is also important that they are given as much information as feasible regarding company procedures, new protocols, and expectations while on and off duty. When these two best practices are combined, the security of the control center is improved and the likelihood of contamination is reduced to provide a safer environment for control center personnel to operate assets safely.

Implementation of Best Practices

Control centers are unique to their operations, but when it comes to something as undermining as COVID-19 many operators are finding that implementing best practices comes in similar forms. While there is some room for innovation, especially with regards to ensuring controllers’ safety and the reasonability of changes, operators who have already begun implementing these steps have seen positive results—in this case, little or no disruption to control center operations.

While best practices are industry wide, how and to what degree they are implemented depend on the individual operator. NuGen Automation has designed a degreed approach to implementing best practices for control rooms amid COVID-19 to help operators assess their current situation and determine the best practices to implement moving forward.

To learn more about best practices and how to implement a degree approach in your control room, download our free white paper “Best Practices for Control Center Response to Infectious Disease: A Degreed Approach.”

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Whitney Vandiver Ph.D.

Whitney Vandiver Ph.D.

Pipeline Compliance Specialist & Thought Leader, NuGen Automation

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