WMS2021 panel finds challenges, opportunities in COVID-19

March 11, 2021, 3:10PMRadwaste Solutions

It has been more than a year since the COVID-19 virus fundamentally changed our daily lives, but with mass vaccinations underway, it is now possible to see a light at the end of the tunnel. The past year presented many challenges, as well as new opportunities, and this was the focus of discussion during the panel session “Strategies to Increase Efficiency, Reduce Cost, Accelerate Work, and Maintain Operational Excellence,” held on March 10 during the 2021 Waste Management Symposia virtual conference. “Last year was a tough year for all of us,” said John Eschenburg, president and chief executive officer of Washington River Protection Solutions, the Department of Energy’s liquid waste contractor at the Hanford Site, near Richland, Wash. “[There were] challenges top to bottom.”

Some of the challenges the session speakers said they faced included transitioning personnel to working remotely, ensuring safety with reduced on-site staff, and reducing workplace stress caused by the pandemic. Yet, the panelists found lessons learned from the pandemic that have created opportunities for positive change, such as the ability to reduce overhead costs while offering staff better a work/life balance by continuing to allow remote working where possible post-pandemic. “Teleworking is here to stay at some level,” Eschenburg noted.


Changing habits: “We’re all creatures of habit. We’re used to getting up early in the morning and coming home late, and when that schedule is disrupted for the workforce, it really throws people off,” Eschenburg said, adding that the pandemic has caused emotional stress among the workforce. However, as employees have become accustomed to remote work, he said, Washington River Protection Solutions has seen productivity increase, particularly among engineering and back office divisions.


James Blankenhorn, senior vice president of operations at Amentum, said, “The pandemic reminded us all about the resiliency of our people and organizations and the impressive ability to adapt to be able to safely continue and complete missions.” Some of the biggest lessons learned from the pandemic, he said, have been the importance of preparation and planning, having good communications, maintaining strong partnerships, and being responsive and engaged.

Blankenhorn, like many of the other panelists, noted the effects of the pandemic on workers’ mental health. Several panelists noted how their companies are increasing efforts to personally engage and communicate with their workers to maintain a healthy environment.


Rebecca Weston, chief operating officer of the United Kingdom’s Sellafield Ltd., commented, “As far as lessons learned, never waste a crisis.” She added, “How do we make sure that we don’t rebound to the situation prior to March [2020]?” Weston noted that because of remote working, Sellafield Ltd. is currently delivering the same amount of work with about half of its workforce being off-site.

Return to normal: With vaccinations increasing and rates of infections going down, many panelists said that they are seeing an increase in the number of employees returning to on-site work. This, however, is creating its own challenges.


“From a safety standpoint, any time you have a work stoppage, how you get back to work is very important,” noted Glenn Morgan, president of DOE cleanup contractor N3B Los Alamos. To help transition personnel back to on-site work, Morgan said, his company worked with the DOE to establish an operations center. Patterned after an emergency control center, the operations center assists in managing staff as they return to work sites.

Weston added that as some work returns to normal, she is looking at how Sellafield Ltd. transitions from the measures that were put in place due to COVID-19 and how the organization can continue to maintain safety and a questioning attitude. “They say that in climbing a mountain, often the most dangerous bit is on the way down,” she said.

Earlier sessions: During the opening session of the WMS on March 8, the DOE's Calendar Year 2021 Mission and Priorities were described by William “Ike” White, the DOE's acting assistant secretary for environmental management.

A day later, on March 9, newly appointed Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm addressed the WMS.

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