A case study on maintaining an essential service through a global pandemic

Viva Energy supplies around a quarter of Australia’s fuel, and up to fifty percent of all the fuel in Victoria comes from its Geelong Refinery. The company also supplies lubricants, bitumen and solvents that keep many Australian industries running. But how does an organisation with national operations, a major manufacturing facility and over 1300 employees successfully operate through a health crisis while ensuring the health and safety of its people, customers, suppliers and communities?

Health and Safety COVID-19

 

As the COVID-19 virus was spreading globally and at an alarming rate, Viva Energy started planning a safe path through that would allow it to continue its operations and deliver the essential products and services that keep Australia moving.

Early action

Viva Energy’s Occupational Health Advisors, Mark Hazelton, Jodie Bourke and Joanne Millar, were intrinsically involved from the start. Their role is to provide health information and implement initiatives across the business that might improve the physical and mental health of all Viva Energy’s people.

“We were watching what was happening around the world,” explains Joanne. “Even before the pandemic was declared, we were preparing, educating and monitoring the situation for our staff.”

Immediate steps were to install hand sanitisers in appropriate locations and monitor the health of several employees who were returning from overseas prior to the introduction of mandatory self-isolation. But as the crisis worsened, the task became more daunting.

Problem solving

Joanne says that simply sourcing equipment was initially difficult. “Thermometers sold out very quickly. Personal Protective Equipment and hand sanitiser were hard to find. But different workgroups came together to source information and equipment, and meet that common goal. That enabled us to develop a register of what was available and send it out to all of our sites, business wide.”

At Viva Energy’s Geelong Refinery, the problem of sourcing sanitiser was resolved in a truly unique way. The team at the refinery’s onsite laboratory began manufacturing isopropyl alcohol solution, which was then used for a range of sanitising purposes such as cleaning shared areas between shifts.

When the pandemic was ultimately declared, the refinery formed the COVID-19 Strategic Response Team. For the first six to eight weeks the team met daily, developing strategies that would maintain the health and safety of the refinery’s workforce.

The refinery’s Operations Manager, Glenn Lyons, was a source of valuable information. “He’s in regular contact with other refineries around the world,” explains Joanne. “We shared ideas on how to keep our employees safe while maintaining our operations.”

Initiatives were introduced quickly, and across the entire business: shared cutlery and condiments were removed from kitchens and chair numbers were reduced to ensure adequate physical distancing; kitchenettes were closed completely; anyone who could work from home was encouraged to do so; and Skype replaced face-to-face meetings.

Education and communication

“We knew that physical distancing was one of the most effective measures to prevent the virus spreading,” explains Joanne. “So through posters, Yammer and electronic platforms, we began explaining the importance of physical distancing and the effectiveness of hand hygiene across the workforce.

“We developed a business-wide COVID-19 webpage, which provided a central access point for the latest updates and policy changes. With such a fluid situation it was important that we provided updates as they happened, and engaged the workforce by explaining and reinforcing our policy changes.”

Communication was also important to reduce anxiety within the workgroups. Employees needed to know what was being done to ensure their safety, and so the team conducted many one-on-one conversations to provide support and reassurance, as well as regular communications with the entire company.

“All the misinformation in the media and on social media heightened people’s anxieties, concerns and fears,” says Jodie. “We had to deal with that almost daily. We’ve seen the potential for pandemics in the past but nothing has been on this scale, affecting the whole world at the same time.”

Managing fear

Jodie explains how concerning the initial spread of the virus in Europe was for Viva Energy’s health team. “I remember watching a few webinars early in March, and up to ten percent of the infections in Italy at the time were healthcare workers, of which twenty-five percent died. It was pretty scary.”

Joanne and Jodie have backgrounds in critical care, working for many years in emergency medicine, but this was a completely new experience. “We didn’t know what we were dealing with,” says Joanne. “We were watching it spread so severely and so easily.”

Mark has family members working in healthcare, including his wife who works in aged care. He also had more personal reasons to be concerned. “I’m a Type One diabetic, and there’s quite a lot of data to show that COVID-19 has a greater impact on diabetics. That was certainly a worry.”

Keeping its operations running

From its refinery in Geelong to its national network of terminals, and at airports across Australia, Viva Energy relies on the skills of its employees and contractors to maintain operations. Those people had to be protected.

People who relied on public transport to get to and from work were coached specifically about the importance of hand hygiene and physical distancing while travelling. Viva Energy also offered subsidised car parking across the business to encourage people to drive to work instead of using public transport.

In addition to the initiatives already implemented across the business by the Health team, workgroups were separated to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus, meeting rooms were closed and on-site visitor access was restricted to essential people only.

The most important initiative introduced by the team was thermal scanning. It was labour intensive, particularly at the Geelong Refinery where over 700 people, including many contractors, work to manufacture essential fuels, bitumen and solvents for Australian industries.

Establishing how the scanning would be achieved was half the battle. Guidelines had to be developed to determine return to work protocols. The staff who would perform the tests had to be trained to use the equipment, and educated on what to do if someone returned a high temperature reading. Then contingency plans had to be developed to manage false results – such as a high reading from an employee who was simply hot from riding a bicycle, or from sitting in a heated car.

Thermal scanning was successfully trialled at the refinery and then rolled-out across Viva Energy’s operations nationally. To date, very few workers who have been tested have returned elevated temperatures. Of the few that have, all have been confirmed to be as a result of general viral symptoms rather than COVID-19.

“We’ve seen that as a really positive outcome,” says Joanne. “It’s not just about keeping COVID-19 out of our national operations. It’s about keeping all viral illnesses out, because they all spread the same way and we want to keep our workforce healthy.”

Working from home

Employees who were now working from home presented a range of new challenges.

Viva Energy recognised that not everybody had a great home office setup, so provided laptop stands and allowed people to take essential IT equipment home. They also provided financial support to fill any equipment gaps.

“The other big part of it was providing ergonomic support,” says Mark. “We gave interim advice on trying to be productive and comfortable while working at home, such as using a chair with lumbar support and taking regular breaks from sitting. We were trying to think outside the box.

“We also tried to give people practical tips on how they could build incidental activity into their home work environment, in light of the fact that they will have potentially experienced a two-thirds to three-quarter reduction in the physical activity that they would normally get at work. Physical activity is great for our wellbeing, both physically and mentally.”

The team also maintained regular contact to make sure people were coping well, and tried to find solutions as they realised some were not.

“Maintaining contact via Skype, internal messages and phone calls with employees working from home was important” says Mark. “As time passed, we started having more conversations around mental health instead of COVID related health questions. Some people working from home had their families around them, so they had that social interaction. But we also had single people living in one-bedroom apartments, and people having to self-isolate after returning from overseas.

“The Health team maintained really open communication, asking ‘Are you okay?’ We wanted people to feel like they could voice any concerns, so we tried to open up that dialogue.”

Viva Energy’s Employee Assistance Program supports employees’ physical, social and mental health and wellbeing. It was (and is) also available for every employee working from home, and for managers who might be concerned about someone in their team.

A positive response

During an unprecedented time of imposed regulation, isolation and hardship, the Health team’s work was made easier by the reaction and response from Viva Energy’s employees.

As Jodie explains: “We were really pleased to see the high number of employees who were being accountable for their own health and for the health of their colleagues. Our measures were taken seriously, because we all have people in our lives who are vulnerable and more susceptible to infection, and nobody wants to be the person who puts those lives at risk.

“We had the support of the business to ensure that important information was delivered and received well, and I think that helped people accept responsibility for their own health.”

Long-term benefits

Regular handwashing using the correct technique has become habitual among Viva Energy employees, which pleases the Health team. It will help limit the transmission of viral infections such as influenza across the workforce, which has been a focus. But Mark believes there will be other long-term benefits as well.

“We’ve seen a change in people’s attitudes towards sick leave, too. Previously people would show up to work really unwell but insisting they’re fine, which only served to spread infection. Now if someone has a sniffle they’re not only expected to stay at home, they’re actually more likely to do so voluntarily.

“Another reason for that is that people now know they can work from home productively. Moving forward, people will have better tools to manage that, which will further encourage them to think, okay, I’m well enough to work but I’m symptomatic and I can’t go to work, so I’ll work from home instead.”

Jodie also points out a key learning from the experience, which was the importance of communication and engaging the workforce. “Advice from the Department of Health and Human Services was changing almost daily, which meant that we had to continually review and disseminate the information to the workforce,” she says. “Anecdotally, there is greater buy-in when people are involved in the decision-making, so that’s been really important.”

A job well done

The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic forced Viva Energy to radically and urgently reassess its health and safety policies and practices. The way this was handled, implemented and accepted on a company-wide level is an immense source of pride for the Health team.

“The steps we took to mitigate the risk of the coronavirus impacting the workforce by providing a safe work environment meant that we could continue to deliver the products and services that are essential for many people across the country,” says Jodie. “But I’m also really proud of the way that we have supported each other as a team.

“We’re a small team but we work well together. We had daily check-ins to make sure we were all coping, especially initially when our workload increased considerably. We would do different things for each other, just to make sure that everything was done.”

Mark agrees. “We all had our highs and lows during this time, and I’m proud of how we stepped up and worked hard to support each other. I’m really thankful to Jo and Jodie for being so helpful and supportive.”

“It’s the way we’ve banded together,” add Joanne. “I’m also really proud of the support that the business has given us. They were looking to us for answers that we didn’t always have. They accepted that, and they were really supportive when we did have those challenging cases. I just think that we’ve all come together really well, not just the Health team but the whole organisation. I’ve got to say, it makes me proud to be part of the Viva Energy workforce.”

Learn more about Viva Energy’s commitment to safety.

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