Bring on 2022!

At the time of writing, it is the Christmas season and the New Year is just around the corner, but the Grinch that is COVID is still lurking in its new disguise as the Omicron variant. I recently attended a gathering with six other couples, who were all vaccinated with boosters, and I felt perfectly safe. I resisted attending other holiday invitations in order to err on the side of caution.

As I write, California is under a statewide mask mandate, but nine states have no mandate and there appears to be an illogical resistance to wearing masks. Then there is a faction with a major opposition to vaccination. There is no logic, nor is there a consensus of opinion, in this resistance and refusal to vaccinate.

Coronavirus could be considered synonymous with change. It has affected almost everything about how we live: shopping, socialising, dining and so on. What transformations, if any, have occurred in the working life of the average non-destructive testing (NDT) technician during this tumultuous time?

The workplace is one area in which many changes have been instituted. Many NDT technicians are considered essential and have barely missed a day of work. Others have seen a slowing down of work based on travel bans and reduced manufacturing. Depending on the industry, most NDT technicians are still quite busy. Critical infrastructure requires inspection, despite an ongoing pandemic. Military production is also considered essential, COVID or not.

An article published in ASNT’s Pulse blog, titled: ‘COVID-19 and the working technician’ explores the working technician’s experience with COVID:

Cat Stravino is a Level II in fluorescent penetrant inspection certified by her employer. She said: “The plant where I work in Connecticut, a large aviation concern, has instituted a number of changes to protect workers from infection in the workplace. Extra cleaning crews were hired to roam through the plant and wipe down surfaces with COVID-killing disinfectants. It is now mandatory to wear a face covering in the plant. The presence of engineers in the plant has been reduced, first by a voluntary separation package that was offered and then by assessment of who is truly essential on site. Working from home is the new normal for administrative staff. Speaking with colleagues from other large corporations, I’ve learned that manufacturers around the country are following CDC guidelines and requiring the use of face masks in the workplace. Many have also installed thermal temperature-scanning and are monitoring employees’ temperatures daily.”

Although air travel and meetings have been greatly reduced both in size and frequency, the average NDT technician working for inspection companies is still quite busy.

A J Samperi of Applus RTD said: “Nothing much has changed, except for the standard procedure of how we have to socially distance and mask.” They wear face coverings whenever they are near others, welders in the field or their clients’ office personnel. Samperi is a Level I in RT certified by his employer. He performs gamma radiography for local weld and fabrication shops as well as gas-line work in the north east of the USA. As far as wearing the mask, he said: “Not a lot of people like it, but everyone has followed suit.” Regarding complying with CDC guidelines, Samperi said: “If we have enough space outdoors, we don’t have to [wear the mask].” Hand washing was never an issue. “I can’t vouch for clients, but everyone washes frequently, because we handle lead and other substances.”

Jason Dukes commented: “The work I do, being considered a part of critical infrastructure, was fortunately not impacted by COVID. Other key factors that kept the work going were the implementation of social distancing, hand washing, sanitising and mask-wearing on and off the job. Not to mention, I am currently working in a remote area of New Mexico.” Dukes is a Level II in MT and UT, certified by his employer, Acuren.

Rachel Rauch, also with Acuren, was working on a pipeline in Tennessee in May when the safety officer arrived at the ditch to hand out bandanas to be worn as masks. According to Rauch, the impact of COVID really affected the excavators when the safety officer said they could no longer chew tobacco in the ditch. She described the combination of expletives that followed as being even more colourful than the pipeline standards. The bandanas they received were pretty difficult to don in 100° heat. “If I’m in the hole and no-one’s there with me, it really wasn’t an issue,” she said. They learned to work at a distance, taking turns going into the ditch or staying apart when possible. Rauch is certified as a Level II in MT by Acuren.

Carly Hoffmann of Canyon State Inspection in Arizona said: “At first, I was scared. You don’t know what a pandemic will do to a business. What if I lose my job?” Travel for work was sharply curtailed when the state’s COVID cases climbed to 3000 per day over the summer. She could no longer travel to clients in Canada and her trips to Hawaiian clients required more paperwork and restrictions while there. Hoffman said that if she visited a mall or beach while in Hawaii, she would be fined or imprisoned. She opted to just work, fill her car with gas and return to the hotel every night. Hoffman, a Level II in MT, PT, UT and eddy current (certified by her employer), believes aircraft she typically would have travelled to 
Canada to inspect were flown to the United States to be inspected or have been sent to a bone yard until travel bans are lifted, which will mean a major uptick in inspection at that time. Despite the drop in aviation, she said: “We are still getting new clients. Phoenix is booming. There are 15 airports in the area and so many private airplanes; it’s a huge network. They call us. It’s good to see people want us.” Hoffmann and all of her colleagues were tested for the infection (and found negative) after one colleague’s exposure.

Ashley Sell of Curtiss-Wright Nuclear said she has not been affected by COVID. She is travelling the country inspecting nuclear plants as a Level II in MT and PT. She inspects all over the country and wears a mask whenever she is near other people. “Everything seems to be fine,” she commented. Even flying is fairly normal, according to Sell: “They don’t do food and beverages and you have to wear a mask on and off the plane. I’ve been on planes that are pretty full, some leave the middle seats open. The airports are pretty much empty,” she said. The threat of a two-week quarantine is not even a huge change for Ashley Sell. She often has three weeks between assignments where she would just stay at home, with or without a pandemic.

The challenges that all companies face during this pandemic – undulating business cycles and changes in travel – amplify a certain level of flexibility in our profession. More importantly, these changes and challenges reveal a resiliency in the individuals that work as technicians.

The experiences reported to the ASNT Group will vary as the COVID variant and infection rates change, but the NDT requirements need to be addressed and NDT technicians must be prepared to meet government and company restrictions and, above all, to protect the health of themselves and their families.

So, to all my readers, have a healthy, safe and prosperous 2022!

Information for this column has been extracted from ‘COVID-19 and the working technician’, an ASNT Pulse article.

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