Going on the Offensive: Foundations for a Resilient Workforce

Jan. 2, 2024
Like many industries, utility organizations seek to continuously improve their employees’ efficiency and impact while upholding the highest safety standards, retaining quality employees, and ensuring an exceptional customer experience.

The utility sector is grappling with challenges that have significantly impacted its operational and financial landscape. Despite increasing electricity sales, the industry has experienced significant cost spikes due to surging natural gas and coal prices and disruptions in the renewable energy supply chain.

These events have led to record-high retail electricity prices, a trend expected to persist. Additionally, the sector has faced ongoing threats from extreme climate events, necessitating investments in grid resilience, energy storage, and cybersecurity measures. A shortage of skilled workers makes the situation worse. Like many industries, utility organizations seek to continuously improve their employees’ efficiency and impact while upholding the highest safety standards, retaining quality employees, and ensuring an exceptional customer experience.

In most countries, including the U.S., utility providers face a growing risk of power disruptions due to severe weather events. Recent data shows that power outages are worsening in number and duration partly due to extreme weather conditions. From 2000–2021, storms and severe weather caused 83% of large-scale outages, affecting at least 50,000 customers in the U.S., according to Climate Central.

Surging Power Outages and Climate Change

Consumers are concerned about the rising cost of electricity and the uncertainty of its availability, particularly during times of vulnerability caused by heatwaves, wildfires, heavy rainfall, and tropical storms. For utility workers, severe weather events pose significant risks to health and safety, as they often face challenging conditions, rush jobs, and unfamiliar circumstances when restoring services in emergencies.

The coming year presents the potential for even more challenges. Factors such as inflation, escalating fuel costs, and ongoing supply chain disruptions may continue to exert upward pressure on electricity prices, posing consumer affordability concerns. Moreover, the persistent risks associated with weather, cybersecurity threats, and the expansion of variable renewables and distributed energy resources demand innovative strategies for ensuring grid reliability. Finding solutions to these multifaceted challenges remains a critical priority for the electric power sector in the future.

Enhancing Resilience and Efficiency: Proactive Measures and Innovative Solutions

Utility companies are taking proactive measures to prepare for increased electrical demand and focusing on minimizing service interruptions. These preparations include using technology such as thermovision camera inspections to identify potential issues in substations and power lines that may go unnoticed in regular visual evaluations. Other strategies to improve operational resilience, efficiency and uptime through technology include incorporating renewable technologies, using submersible components for flooding, and utilizing system data and insights for restoration planning.

Effective communication networks, whether wired, wireless, or a combination, ensure worker safety and enable swift responses to changing conditions. Field service managers leverage a comprehensive network view to prioritize work, direct crews effectively, and address new hazards or outages. Mobile workforce management solutions, known as Enterprise Mobile Management or EMM platforms, further enhance efficiency by providing control over workforce activities, including scheduling, time tracking, and alerts, ultimately boosting productivity through improved operational efficiency and reduced costs. Software can further help organizations track physical assets like devices or vehicles and monitor their health – such as battery life, security protocols, and software updates – minimizing downtime that can lead to lost productivity, reputational impact, or time lost to recovery, all of which negatively affect the bottom line. There is no tolerance for interruptions caused by software reboots, battery replacements, GPS inaccuracies, connectivity issues, or other common malfunctions in critical emergencies.

Critical Requirements for Utility Workers: Durability, Reliability, and Usability

While software can put utility workers in a position to deliver unprecedented responses efficiently and effectively, accessing software in unpredictable conditions can be difficult. Difficult conditions place high demands on equipment durability. As such, hardware remains the essential connection between utility workers and their ability to use the advanced capabilities they need to address today’s challenges.  Devices must withstand challenging conditions, including extreme temperatures, frequent drops, and constant exposure to water, all while maintaining unwavering reliability for the operator.

The cost of the short lifespan of consumer grade devices is high. Both consumer and enterprise devices suffer from planned obsolescence that limits the usability and increases total cost of ownership (TCO). While some obsolescence is seen in feature availability or battery span, the inability to repair consumer devices contributes to monumental misalignment with the needs and philosophies of modern utility companies who are seeking to demonstrate a lower environmental impact as well as show positive shareholder returns. Ruggedized cases or enclosures may seem like a good way to protect lower cost consumer devices in an industrial setting.

However, this typically only protects against the device being dropped. Ruggedized devices that are supported through extended warranties, can be repaired, and returned quickly to service not only support positive user experience and effectiveness, but reduce costs of purchasing new capital assets. 
Durability is not enough – devices must also cater to unique usability requirements. For instance, touchscreens must be responsive to gloved hands, and display screens must remain visible in the bright sunlight of summer heat waves or dark, wet conditions of winter storms. Over 40,000 line workers in hundreds of trucks from Southeastern states responded to support impacts from Hurricane Ian. The devices they carried needed to be compatible with vehicle mounts, ensure accessibility during transit, and easy removal at their destination.

Advanced security considerations also play a crucial role in selecting devices for utility workers. In recent years, critical infrastructure hacks have increased, with bad actors gaining access to the power grid multiple times. Endpoint security for utility workers Standard devices and the thin security they provide are unsuitable. Utility teams need to focus on their jobs and trust the built-in security of their devices.

Empower Utility Workers with the Best Tools for the Job

As utility organizations reassess their hardware choices amidst evolving workplace dynamics, economic inflation, and environmental sustainability concerns, they would be remiss if they did not account for the impact of extreme environmental working conditions. While some providers may accept more frequent hardware replacements, this approach can increase ownership costs and expose employees to security and service interruption risks. The cost of downtime for utility companies themselves can be steep, but this only represents a portion of the total economic impact due to carry-on cost of consumer downtime.

Beyond the operational cost considerations, dependable technology is paramount for ensuring the safety of utility workers and the general public they serve. While the business impacts can significantly affect the economy, the impact on individuals can’t be underestimated. For the elderly and those with preexisting health conditions or those living in poorly insulated homes, power outages can lead to heat illness, hypothermia and even death.

Rugged devices such as laptops and tablets, designed to withstand harsh conditions that consumer-grade devices cannot endure, must be deployed to support frontline workers in harnessing new technologies for improved performance. These devices are built to handle the conditions utility workers perform in and can offer consistent connectivity even in remote areas, boast long-lasting battery life, and deliver efficient and reliable processing. The bottom line is that those who dedicate themselves to safeguarding our access to power and pushing the boundaries of what is possible should have access to reliable technology.

Mike McMahon is the president of Getac North America with decades of experience in the rugged OEM computing business from an end-user and channel perspective. Serving as president since 2019, Mike’s unique perspective on rugged technology encompasses a range of industry sectors including Utilities, Automotive, Industrial Manufacturing and Public Safety. 


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