COVID, figures, surveilance

On the front lines of Wärtsilä’s pandemic response

The efforts of Wärtsilä’s crisis response team have become more visible during the pandemic, as its members have worked tirelessly to update policies and procedures to keep employees safe.

The efforts of Wärtsilä’s crisis response team have become more visible during the pandemic, as its members have worked tirelessly to update policies and procedures to keep employees safe.

Postings on company intranets – important as they may be – don’t normally go viral. So, when a single page on the Wärtsilä intranet, Compass, reached 90,000 visits earlier this year, it was an all-time high in the history of the company. The record was set by the page where Wärtsilä’s corporate Crisis Response Team publishes their latest updates and guidelines on the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Peter Sund, General Manager of Security, and owner of the crisis management process at Wärtsilä, this was important information.

“The number of visitors on that page alone tells us how concerned people are,” he says. “When we passed the one-year milestone of this pandemic, I counted the number of emails concerning Covid I had personally processed. It was more than 10,000 – and they keep coming.”

Ville Sulonen, General Manager of Environment, Health and Safety at Wärtsilä, agrees.

“At Wärtsilä, many are used to challenging environments. We work in the engine room of big vessels, on oil rigs and at power plants all over the world. We operate in jungles and deserts alike, and in areas affected by violence such as conflict and terrorism. But this pandemic is a different kind of risk. It has affected us all, both at work and at home,” he says.

Unnoticed, but critical

Sund and Sulonen are both part of the Crisis Response Team that Wärtsilä assembled to handle issues connected to the virus and help keep company employees around the world safe during the pandemic.

To them, a company’s crisis management capability is a critical part of any major organisation, especially if, like Wärtsilä, it operates in challenging environments. However, they also find it completely natural that most employees only notice their team when things go wrong.

Sulonen thinks that might have changed due to Covid.

“The pandemic has made everyone more aware of the invisible nature of risks and the importance of taking precautions, even when everything ‘looks’ safe,” he says. “People like Peter and I work to improve safety and security 365 days a year, work that partially might not be noticed by everyone. Maybe Covid has turned more attention to the work we do. If so, I hope the result will not only be more focus on our efforts in the future, but an even stronger safety culture where everyone acts and reacts like a safety ambassador.”

A worldwide network

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Sulonen and Sund, operating at the corporate level, have worked to support and assist local Incident Management Teams and employees who have still had to travel.

“The way we came to work together with COVID-19 is the same as we always do in high-intensity incidents and crises. We have a worldwide skeleton of dormant local teams that we can activate when something happens,” says Sund.

These units are essential for providing a flow of information between corporate capabilities and people at sites around the world.

 “Depending on the character of the incident, we invite the necessary expertise and resources to the teams,” says Sund.

Sulonen says that these local groups were vital to the Covid response effort.

“There is no way we could have managed this pandemic without them. This is by far the longest and most extensive crisis Wärtsilä has ever been through,” he says. “We have learned a lot, and there are of course things that could have been done better. But overall, our governance model, with a corporate organisation supporting a structure of local crisis response teams, has withstood the pressure.”

Rethinking travel 

The risks of traveling during the pandemic are well known and at Wärtsilä, business travel dropped by 90% in the early months of the pandemic, although it couldn’t stop entirely. It is now back to around 60% of pre-pandemic levels.

“We serve critical infrastructures and operations in societies, such as transport and energy, so we could not stop traveling altogether. Instead, we have avoided all travel that is not necessary and when absolutely necessary, we have kept the people travelling as safe as possible,” Sulonen says.

Sund says the multi-professional team has taken a number of measures to keep employees safe during the pandemic.

“If we were to list the actions taken one by one, it would be dozens and dozens. But a good example, among other things, is a new procedure for business travel that we have created as an extension to the existing business travel process,” Sund says.

The modified process includes a “white-listing” procedure for customer sites. This is an evaluation of risks connected to the destination, individual susceptibility to COVID-19, state traveling requirements – such as Covid-testing – and organising medical contingency plans for employees going to locations that have poor health care capabilities. 

Sulonen says that while new procedures such as these have been necessary, “the basic overall safety culture we have worked so hard to build for years within Wärtsilä has proved the most important.”

Sund notes that Wärtsilä has a long-standing policy called the "Stop Work Authority,” which is certified by the CEO.

“It basically says that if you observe unsafe conditions at work, you can stop the work. I think that says a lot about how important safety is for Wärtsilä. If I could send one message to all my colleagues, it is for them to trust that risks can be mitigated. If incidents, such as when you observe unsafe work conditions or have concerns, are reported they can be addressed in a systematic way,” Sund says.

Planning for a safe future

Lately, the crisis teams have increased their focus on the long-term effects of working from home.

“At its peak, around 10,000 of our employees worked from home. In September last year, we realised that working from home would continue for a long time. We knew we had to start minimising risks connected to it to avoid consequences of, for example, a lack of ergonomics and social isolation. In this instance, our HR has had a critical role,” Sulonen says.

Now, there’s also the question of how and when to make a safe return to the physical workspace.

“It’s too soon to say exactly how it will be done,” Sulonen says. “What I can say is that we are taking local conditions into account. In some parts of the world, it may still take longer before we return to anything resembling normal. However, in other regions progress is faster.”

But when the policy and procedures are in place, employees will be able to read all about it on the Compass Covid update page.

See the latest COVID-19 statement by the global Crisis Response Team.

Written by
Marie-Louise Olsen