Making progress in the field, despite pandemic challenges

August 13, 2020

While some aspects of fieldwork can be modified through technological innovation, there are other things that simply can’t be done without getting out on the ground or in the water. How can we make fieldwork not only efficient and effective, but also COVID-safe?
photo by Grace Uziallo

photo by Grace Uziallo

For our Environment and Planning team, interstate and intra-state travel restrictions and work-from-home orders rolled in at the height of the field season when most summer and autumn seasonal surveys were being completed and when many in the team would usually spend multiple days each week in the field. We’ve managed the fieldwork challenges through practical modifications for greater safety, taking confounding factors into account when analysing our results, using technology to support fieldwork, and collaborating with our clients, partners and local businesses to find solutions together.

Practical modifications for safety and wellbeing

Despite the restrictions and changed conditions brought about by COVID-19, we have been keen to find safe solutions to continue working seamlessly with our clients. Our teams have adapted their fieldwork patterns and adopted stringent methods, including fieldwork procedure reviews, undertaking day trips rather than longer trips where possible, reducing the number of people per field trip to the practical minimum, maintaining social distancing, and practising good hygiene, such as wiping down equipment and common touchpoints, from car gear sticks to the helms of our boats.

For example, our aquatic scientists are braving the Tasmanian winter chill to ensure that water quality and monitoring datasets for Hydro Tasmania continue to be logged. This data is critical to understanding impacts on aquatic fauna, and forms part of a multi-year monitoring regime for many of the state’s water bodies. The team would normally be undertaking week-long field trips; however, in response to the pandemic and due to the temporary closure of many accommodation options, the trips are shorter and efforts have been made to avoid the virus hotspots within the state wherever possible.

Managing fatigue is always important when undertaking field work, and especially so during COVID-19. For most field work, physical distancing requirements have ruled out travelling in a single vehicle. However, travelling in separate cars means that the driving can’t be shared. To manage fatigue associated with driving, we have made field days shorter, or, if more practical, we’ve stayed overnight in local self-contained accommodation to avoid travelling after long working days. 

Mental wellbeing has also been a crucial consideration while living and working through the pandemic. Our teams have stayed connected, whether working at home or in the field, through more virtual team catch-ups, quiz nights and virtual Friday post-work-week banters. Picking up on cues that indicate someone may be struggling is more difficult over email or a phone or video call than when working together in the office, so it’s more important than ever to actively check in on each others’ and our own wellbeing. At Entura, ensuring staff mental and physical wellbeing is always a high priority – and, particularly during the pandemic, taking time out to breathe and declutter the mind has helped us avoid mental burnouts and kept us as motivated as ever to deliver outcomes for our clients.

Taking confounding factors into account

Our ecologists have continued to undertake their monitoring programs, including night-time roadkill surveys along lengthy stretches of winding wilderness roads to look for threatened fauna such as quolls, Tasmanian devils and wombats. One of the challenges of undertaking this work during the pandemic has been the potential that the data collected may be confounded by reduced traffic volumes, making it questionable as to whether the data collected can be applied to a post-COVID world. In addition, reduced traffic volumes may also be influencing wildlife habits – for example, making them less wary of roads.

When interpreting the data, we took these potential implications into consideration, and some monitoring regimes were extended to compensate for potential changes to usual patterns. This will help ensure that the monitoring program provides a realistic representation of trends from which ongoing management decisions can be made.

Minimising fieldwork through technology

Entura has been actively assisting with Hydro Tasmania’s Battery of the Nation initiative. This initiative, jointly supported by the federal government (through the Australian Renewable Energy Agency) and state government, is investigating and developing a pathway of future development opportunities in hydropower system expansion including pumped hydro. For our Environment and Planning team and our Spatial and Data Services team, fieldwork for their involvement in Battery of the Nation has been able to continue, albeit with some innovative adaptations.

The spatial team has developed robust methods for visual impact analysis that can be applied to multiple project locations and types. To meet COVID-19 fieldwork guidelines, minimal staff have ventured into the field. These smaller teams have used technology to send real-time information (such as geo-tagged photos) to a pre-arranged server, allowing others at the ‘office’ to access the information almost immediately. The data has included light detection and ranging data, 3D models of project elements and real-life photography, which has been processed to generate 3D walkthroughs and web-scenes. These provide an important output for the project, but are also a useful tool for other team members to understand the site context without needing to go into the field themselves.

Solving problems through local collaborations

In some cases, overcoming the fieldwork limitations of COVID-19 has required a higher than usual level of collaboration with clients, partners and other organisations. For example, when the pandemic travel restrictions prevented the original interstate consultant from travelling to Tasmania as planned, our surveyors and ecologists were called in to assist our local partner TasNetworks with an important project on Bruny Island in Southern Tasmania. The submarine cable from mainland Tasmania that ensures security of electricity supply for the Bruny community is currently being replaced after the existing cable was damaged beyond repair late last year. Our proximity made it possible to step in to help. In a display of local collaboration, Entura assisted with the bathymetric and cable trenching clearance surveys, passing the data on to TasNetworks’ cable design engineers so that planning for replacement of the cable could continue.

Anticipating the ‘next normal’

In Tasmania, we are fortunate to be gradually emerging from COVID-19 isolation and we are eagerly awaiting the return of our ability to undertake the works and visits we have had to delay, yet we’re well aware that some changes or restrictions may be with us for quite some time yet. For now, we will keep working closely with our clients to be agile and resilient, so that together we can find safe and innovative COVID-friendly ways to move our projects forward.

If you would like to discuss how Entura can help you with your environmental or planning project, please contact us.

For more articles from our Environmental and Planning team, visit our Thought Leadership collection, where you’ll find their articles about maintaining the progress of international projects and the challenges of starting new projects during the pandemic and the changes it has brought to planning regimes around Australia – amongst many more articles of interest to anyone involved in the power and water sector.

 MORE THOUGHT LEADERSHIP ARTICLES