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Which Electrical Engineers are Considered “Essential Workers” During COVID-19?

April 18, 2020 by Tyler Charboneau

If healthcare workers are on the front line of the pandemic, engineers may be on the second.

With so many sequestered at home during this pandemic, scores of employees, including electrical engineers, must still perform essential duties. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently released a report identifying workers considered "essential" for upholding critical infrastructure throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

While electrical engineers are explicitly mentioned in dozens of capacities throughout the document, they are highlighted most prominently in two industries: healthcare and communications. How are these "essential engineers" faring COVID-19?

 

The industries that most require critical infrastructure workers

The industries that most require critical infrastructure workers. Image (modified) used courtesy of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security
 

We’ll assess this question for both industries while offering some brief notes on EEs working in other sectors as well.

 

Engineering and Healthcare

The COVID-19 narrative tells an ongoing tale of shortages, especially involving lifesaving equipment. In these instances, ventilators have become indispensable. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio says the city alone needs 15,000 ventilators through the month of May. He also estimated a need for 2,500 to 3,000 ventilators this week at a minimum to meet rising demands.

A partnership between Ford and GE hopes to produce 50,000 ventilators in 100 days. GE has expressed that it’s not suited to large-scale production—leaving Ford’s workforce to handle assembly. GE Healthcare is licensing simpler ventilator designs from Airon Corporation. Such an undertaking requires major human capital.

 

Ford ventilator production

Ford and GE have expressed an aggressive plan to up ventilator production over the next few months. Image used courtesy of Ford
 

These ventilators are complex, often containing over 300 components. High-level knowledge is required to design reliable, efficient machines—especially since they’ll be working overtime. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security identifies workers for health manufacturing as essential to meet these demands: biotechnology employees, materials and parts suppliers, and engineers who design testing materials and automated disinfecting machines.

 

An Outpouring of Ventilator Designs

Even beyond these essential EEs in the healthcare sphere, some major companies have asked their electrical engineers to turn their sights to medical device production. 

Tesla has even repurposed their factory parts for ventilator production. Engineers—both mechanical and electrical—will convert infotainment computers and touchscreens into functional monitoring tools. These interface elements will help nurses control airflow as needed. 

 

Tesla's pneumatic schematic

A Tesla engineer explains how Tesla components and medical components come together in this "pneumatic schematic." Screenshot used courtesy of Tesla
 

The U.S. Army is even paying $100,000 for economical ventilator designs, assuredly sparking collaborative engineering. 

Some medical device companies, like Medtronics, have publicly published their ventilator designs to allow independent engineers to join in the effort. Elsewhere, electrical engineers are leading open-source ventilator projects. These are focused on making products less invasive, easier to produce via 3D printing, and automated. Professionals like these could help us confront the virus head-on with great success.

 

Overburdened Hospitals Look to EEs

What if we could automate risky (or time-consuming) hospital duties with robotics? 

Hospitals are epicenters of nosocomial (secondhand) infections, and COVID-19 has further complicated the matter. Wuhan’s Huoshenshan Hospital conducted a study in March that examined COVID surface contamination in the ICU and general ward. Seventy percent of ICU floor swabs tested positive. Computer equipment, trash cans, and sickbed handrails commonly harbored the live virus, especially in rooms previously hosting coronavirus patients. 

Considering these areas must be disinfected, how can we do it safely? As we discussed in a past article on EE medical innovations amidst COVID-19, engineers at Xenex created a UV-C disinfecting robot—bucking the need for manual cleaning. This technology promises to keep patient areas clean while limiting exposure.

 

UVD Robots

UVD Robots has also designed a disinfecting robot. Image used courtesy of UVD Robots
 

Our previous article also touched on rapid COVID-19 testing methods, which involve a technology dubbed a "lab-on-a-chip" and a microfluidic technology for COVID-19 DNA sequencing. 

 

Engineering and Communications

Per the memorandum, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has also deemed many telecommunications and IT workers essential. Electrical engineers form the backbones of these industries—maintaining base station equipment and other network hardware. 

For data center operations, the report calls on EEs, data transfer solutions engineers, and database hardware engineers. Here are other specified designers asked to stay on deck:

  • Field engineers
  • Workers supporting critical infrastructure
  • Manufacturers and supply chain vendors that provide hardware and software
  • Hardware support services
  • Engineers in telecom research and development
  • Specialists on certain IT equipment (involving microelectronics)
  • Specialists on HVAC and electrical equipment for critical infrastructure
  • Engineers working in test labs that certify such equipment (microelectronics, optoelectronics, and semiconductors) for critical infrastructure, including data centers

 

Upholding Data Centers

We've previously discussed how stay-at-home orders are overburdening data centers, and this reality puts increasing pressure on EEs working in this space.

The UK, recognizing the essential role of telecom network engineers, has exempted children of telecom engineers from stay-at-home regulations, so their parents can continue working. Bloomberg also reports that phone network engineers are particularly crucial as network traffic spikes. Electrical engineers will lead the charge as broadband providers modernize. 

 

Data center employee

With work and school moved to online, data centers are requiring extra support from their employees. 
 

Telecom engineers, unfortunately, will have to add cell tower restoration to their to-do list as well. Conspiracy theories linking COVID-19 and 5G deployment have fueled hysteria, leading to cell tower vandalism. 

 

Increased Telecom Compensation

Because electrical engineers are so essential at a time when social distancing requires remote communication, some telecom companies are rewarding and incentivizing their workers. BT, Virgin Media, and Verizon, for example, are increasing salaries during the outbreak. They’re also generously compensating field engineers.

Unlike many industries that are economically hard-hit by the coronavirus, it seems that EEs are finding steady work.

 

Other Notable Industries 

EEs still have vital roles elsewhere, according to the government report. Essential engineers in the energy, public safety, and transportation industries will do their part to maintain (inter)national infrastructure.

The report also mentioned that engineers may need to assist in keeping utilities running and maintaining rock-solid connectivity at dispatch centers. Engineers might also be required to help logistics operations run smoothly—including warehouses and fulfillment centers, where facility-wide systems require upkeep. 

Electrical engineers might not share the limelight with other essential workers, but they are performing critical duties throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Given EE's participation in quelling the effects of the outbreak so far, it seems their innovations will be just as essential in the weeks and months to come.  

 


 

Are you one of those engineers considered "essential" at this time? What do you do? Tell us about your job and how COVID-19 has affected your day-to-day work.

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