Starting a new job is hard – and starting a new job managing employee safety under the COVID-19 pandemic is even harder.
Emma Yokum accepted the position of Safety Officer for the Green Bank Observatory in March 2020 – days before shelter-in-place mandates for the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic went into effect across the United States. Emma was not afraid of this challenge, “I started right in the middle, when everything was hitting pretty heavy. It was definitely an interesting time to start a new job, but it’s been really exciting.”
The Green Bank Observatory is home of the Green Bank Telescope, the largest fully steerable radio telescope in the world. It has been one of the few observatories in the world to maintain its operations, uninterrupted by the virus, ensuring that scientific observations can continue.
The Green Bank Observatory is an independent scientific research facility that has affiliations with larger institutions, including the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and Associated Universities, Inc., who administer dozens of scientific facilities around the world. Being a part of this broader network ensures that staff in West Virginia are following the most current safety best practices and have access to greater support and resources.
Green Bank is located in a remote valley surrounded by the Allegheny Mountains. Observatory staff are already familiar with a certain type of isolation by the nature of its location. However, Emma, under the direction of National Radio Astronomy Observatory Safety Manager Jody Bolyard, knew that even more stringent social distancing and safety directives would need to be put in place for COVID-19.
These new safety protocols include daily health screenings when employees arrive on campus, along with the distribution of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) necessary for the work at hand. Staff submit detailed plans outlining how tasks will be completed, ensuring social distancing, even for complex repairs on the Green Bank Telescope, which require additional safety protocols, such as fall protection.
“What happens if I develop a fever, or test positive for COVID-19? How long will I need to isolate before I can return to the office? What if a family member is showing symptoms of COVID?” asks Jody, sharing these questions in a recent email to all Observatory employees.
The answers to Jody’s questions are shared with staff across all locations via a special employee intranet. Each situation is evaluated individually, and a determination made case-by-case, following CDC recommendations. Many Observatory employees have been working from home since March, as many types of work can be completed remotely, and will continue to do so through the end of 2020. However, to fully maintain the operations of the Green Bank Telescope, other staff like mechanics, engineers, and machinists must be on campus. Says Emma, “It’s good in a way, coming into a new place and learning new things, but everyone who has been here for years is learning new things to do to stay safe from COVID-19, too.”
Emma is a native West Virginian, whose family has resided for generations in the Mountain State. Growing up in Whitmer, a town approximately one hour away by twisting mountain and valley roads, she enjoys the beauty of her home state and the great outdoors. A graduate of Glenville State College, Emma went on to earn her Masters from West Virginia University.
“COVID definitely makes maintaining staff safety more difficult. It’s not as easy as putting safety glasses on or ensuring your harness fit’s right. It’s an invisible threat,” says Emma, “But we’re making the best of the situation, everyone is doing what they have to do to stay safe.” She adds with a laugh, having been here for several months now, “I’m only learning to recognize my coworkers with their masks on.”
Want to see Emma in action? Watch this video.
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The Green Bank Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation and is operated by Associated Universities, Inc.
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