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Essential Trades

Workers continue to provide services during pandemic

Students can complete the Lineman Training Program in a matter of weeks and be on their way to providing safe and reliable electricity. Photo: Tim Webb
KCTCS trains students in fields from welding, to industrial maintenance technology. Photo: Link-Belt Cranes
Kentucky’s Touchstone Energy Cooperatives and KCTCS partner on the Lineman Training Program at Hazard, Maysville and Somerset community colleges. Photo: EKPC
KCTCS trains students in fields from welding, to industrial maintenance technology. Photo: Maysville Community and Technical College
The need for HVAC services is as high as ever and schools like Maysville Community and Technical College are especially equipped to train the workforce. Photo: MCTC
Kentucky’s Touchstone Energy Cooperatives and KCTCS partner on the Lineman Training Program at Hazard, Maysville and Somerset community colleges. Photo: Tim Webb

When many businesses across Kentucky shuttered on March 23 to prevent the spread of COVID-19, lots of Kentuckians still got up every morning and headed to work. Yes, doctors, nurses and health care workers were on the front lines fighting the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, but there were other unseen heroes keeping the lights on, the air conditioning units buzzing and critical manufacturing lines running. Electricians, lineworkers, welders, plumbers and heating-air conditioning personnel are among those who have worked throughout the pandemic with added safeguards to mitigate this ongoing public health crisis. 

“Hygiene and sanitation have always been a big issue with service workers like plumbers and electricians,” says Russ Ward, campus director at the Rowan (County) Campus of Maysville Community and Technical College, served by Fleming-Mason Energy. “That’s what we teach. The tools are just an extension of you. It’s the person behind the tool that makes industry work.” 

Most plumbers, for example, who work on drainage and sewage systems, already take precautions to prevent contact with dangerous pathogens in wastewater.

Electricians, lineworkers and welders also wear personal protective equipment such as gloves and face shields when they work with certain materials that are harmful if inhaled or touched directly. 

At Fannins’ Plumbing, Heating, & Electrical Co. in Paintsville, Joseph Lee Fannin, his mother and brother operate the business started by his grandfather in 1974. 

“Communication has always been important for us as a business, but it is the key now,” says Fannin. 

When a customer calls for service or an estimate, Fannin outlines what his crew will need to do and then asks them if they’re OK with service personnel coming in the home. 

“Some people want you in their house; some people don’t. Some people think it’s a big deal, and others don’t,” he says. 

As a mechanical service provider and contractor, Fannin’s business, with its crew of 20 employees, was exempted from initial COVID-19 closure orders by Gov. Andy Beshear, but not every job required workers to interact with the customer. 

“There are certain applications where one guy is working outside and wouldn’t be in contact with anyone, but even then, we provided our guys with face masks, gloves and hand sanitizer no matter where they were going,” Fannin says. 

An older woman in Johnson County recently called Fannin for an estimate on some work she needed done at her house, asking if his employees would wear masks. 

“I told her we would take every precaution and she said, ‘Good. My husband and I are both in our 80s. We can’t get this. It will kill us.’” 

Welded to the job 

State and federal guidelines deem many other types of industries essential during the pandemic, encompassing Lexington’s Link-Belt Cranes, which designs, manufactures and sells telescopic and lattice boom cranes. Welder Blanca Sanchez Estrada has been on the job at Link- Belt through the public health crisis. 

She was supposed to graduate from Maysville Community and Technical College with the event scheduled in early May. 

“With the coronavirus, they had to cancel it, and we don’t know if we’ll have the ceremony,” Estrada says. 

But even before she graduated, she had been placed by SMX Staffing as a welder at Link-Belt Cranes. 

“I have always liked tools since I was a little girl, and I knew welding was a good job,” says Estrada. 

In 2017, Estrada started to learn English as a second language at Morehead State University’s Adult Learning Center. When Nick Pecco, the welding instructor at Maysville Community and Technical College, gave a talk at the center about the welding industry, Estrada knew she wanted to pursue a degree in the field. 

Pecco, who has been a welder since 1997 and a certified welding instructor since 2008 at the Rowan (County) Campus, says Estrada had no experience, but learned basic gas metal arc welding and how to run a welding machine. Pecco was not surprised that Estrada continued to work throughout the shutdown: “Blanca’s work ethic is impeccable.” 

When it comes to precautions against the coronavirus, welders already work with a lot of safety equipment. Students in Pecco’s classes use safety goggles and gloves with fresh-air respirators in ventilated metal booths. Link-Belt’s strict safety precautions require welders to wear gloves, hoods and shields at all times. The company also requires equipment and tools to be cleaned and sanitized with appropriate disinfectants; and it follows other good workplace practices, such as not sharing tools. 

Training goes on 

As Estrada’s experience shows, the pandemic has not stopped training for essential fields, like the service provided by Kentucky’s electric cooperatives. Kentucky’s Touchstone Energy Cooperatives and the Kentucky Community & Technical College System are partnering in this effort. 

An example is the KCTCS Lineman Training Program in Maysville, Hazard and Somerset. Hundreds of people have completed the eight-week program and have been placed in lineworker jobs across Kentucky and all over the United States. 

“Like most of our short-term programs, students can complete this training in weeks, not years, and many students in the Lineman Training Program have jobs waiting for them,” says Jay Box, KCTCS president. “This is another example of how we’re living our mission of improving the lives and employability of Kentuckians.” 

Kentucky co-ops and KCTCS are committed to training lineworkers to safely and reliably provide electricity during the pandemic and long after it is over. 

For many Kentuckians, knowing that service personnel in these essential businesses are protecting themselves and their clients is an added relief in an otherwise stressful time. 

“People need water and heat no matter what,” says Fannin. “We want to make sure they get that safely.”

Pandemic prepared: How to handle house calls 

If you are a homeowner or business owner concerned about a service provider making a house call, communicate that concern beforehand to the service provider.   

“We want to protect the customer and have good protections in place for our guys, too,”  says Joseph Lee Fannin of Fannins’ Plumbing, Heating & Electrical Co., Inc., in Paintsville. He suggests consumers should be forthcoming and communicate with the business if they have concerns about vulnerable family members in the home. 

Woodford County Health Department Director Cassie Hudson Prather agrees.  

“It would be wise when you call to make an appointment with a service provider to notify them of any immune-compromised individuals within the household, so they can be prepared,” she says.   

Other questions consumers can ask before scheduling an in-home service:  

• Do your workers have access to hand sanitizer, face masks and gloves?   

• Are you requiring symptom and temperature screens before work?  

• Are your workers practicing social distancing?   

• How have you revised your sick or wellness policies during the pandemic?   

As no vaccine is currently available for COVID-19, it’s critical all workers recognize the symptoms associated with the virus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and a persistent cough, according to Kentucky’s Healthy at Work Initiative.   

According to the United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), even under normal conditions, a homeowner should expect that all in-home repair service personnel practice good public health practices, such as frequent hand washing and coughing or sneezing into a disposable tissue or the crook of the elbow. These public health precautions protect the workers as well as the customer.  

But now house calls require increased caution. OSHA suggests service personnel “maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from customers and other individuals, whenever possible,” and when opening, entering or leaving the residence, consider alternatives to shaking hands.   

OSHA also urges service workers who make in-house calls to understand the proper use of any personal protective equipment they may be using as well as the removal and disposal of such equipment.   

For the latest information on COVID-19  in Kentucky, visit https://kycovid19.ky.gov .

For the latest information on Kentucky’s Healthy At Work initiative, visit https://govstatus.egov.com/ky-healthy-at-work.

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