Drones and mist cannons help India’s energy sector fight virus


A drone at a municipal office in Chennai on March 26. Using drones to monitor social distancing at refineries is one of the measures employers in India’s labour-intensive oil, gas and coal industries are taking to ensure the Covid-19 outbreak doesn’t hobble operations in the world’s third-largest energy consumer. — AFP

As Covid-19 infections across India rise beyond the two-million mark, the country’s energy companies are coming up with novel solutions to keep the virus at bay and their operations running.

From drones used to monitor social distancing at refineries to giant mist cannons that spray disinfectants near workers’ quarters, employers in India’s labour-intensive oil, gas and coal industries are taking extreme measures to ensure the outbreak doesn’t hobble operations in the world’s third-largest energy consumer.

Suppliers of energy that fuel everything from cars to kitchen stoves and farming equipment employ hundreds of thousands of people – some of whom travel vast distances for jobs including maintenance work on refineries – making the task of containing the virus and reducing possible shutdowns even harder.

Oil refiner Bharat Petroleum Corp began flying drones over hectares of land to record the behaviour of workers to ensure they’re not flouting social-distancing rules, according to R. Ramachandran, director of refineries at the state-run firm. The company is also deploying an army of hygiene inspectors at all of its plants, he said.

BPCL, which has about 10,000 contract workers at its Kochi refinery near the country’s southern coast, also started the practice of isolating migrant labourers before allowing them to work in the refinery, Ramachandran said.

Heavy-duty machinery

For workers in India’s coal industry that usually live with their families in cramped quarters near mines, operators such as Coal India Ltd are using industrial-strength machinery to try and keep the virus in check.

Giant mist or fog cannons that are typically used to suppress dust kicked up by mining trucks are now being deployed to disperse disinfectants across large areas, said B. Sairam, spokesman at Mahanadi Coalfields, a unit of Coal India.

"We are equally concerned about the workers’ families and their locality,” said Sairam. "To address that issue, we’re educating their families and other locals through sessions. Pamphlets showing importance of washing hands and keeping social distancing have been pasted all over the workers’ colonies.”

Quick thinking

Last month, when Indian Oil Corp discovered some Covid cases amid the thousands of skilled workers and labourers brought in to help with works at one of its largest plants in Paradip, officials knew they had a small window of opportunity to stem the contagion.

Executives moved quickly to isolate about 50 infected persons, tested 1,600 workers who lived in the same off-site complex and implemented rotating shifts to allow healthy labourers to enter and exit the refinery for specific tasks. This routine prevented groups from mixing and allowed maintenance at the multi-billion dollar refinery to proceed without any major disruptions.

"When we found out about the infections, we minimised the jobs to ensure no Covid-positive person got inside,” said T.D.V.S. Gopalakrishna, Indian Oil’s executive director who is in-charge of the plant. "By the end of this week, we should be through with our shutdown. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed to release all my contractors.”

Off-site efforts

NTPC Ltd, India’s largest power producer, has overhauled its technology systems to allow some staff to work from home as well as to raise invoices and award contracts through a paperless process, the company said in an emailed note.

On top of enabling employees to work remotely, the company also created designated control rooms at plant sites to monitor compliance of Covid-19 safety guidelines.

The pandemic has presented us with "a big challenge, especially with the workforce, but a lot of solutions are also evolving,” said Mukesh Kumar Surana, chairman of Hindustan Petroleum Corp, a major state refiner and fuel retailer. "We have put in place various measures to ensure that the job continues and at the same time well-being of workforce is taken care of.” – Bloomberg

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