Seeing through the COVID communications barrier

Helping people who need to see facial expressions through a mask, is the driving force for a new initiative by the UK’s biggest electricity distributor.

UK Power Networks has equipped frontline workers on its customer service vans, with innovative see-through masks to help conversations flow more easily.

In today’s Covid-conscious and socially-isolated world, the move is set to help a range of people including those who are Deaf or hard of hearing and those with dementia or anxiety. As well as being able to lip read, people will now be able to see facial gestures such as a friendly smile, helping provide additional reassurance during power cuts.

UK Power Networks is third in the Inclusive Top 50 Employers list for demonstrating best practice around diversity and inclusiveness through the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

The company, which delivers power to 8.3 million homes and businesses across the East of England, London and South East is the only distribution network operator to be National Equality Standard accredited.

Its customer support vehicles already offer free refreshments, phone and tablet charging, and other practical assistance on site during power cuts. The vans are run in partnership with Haste, whose staff are wearing the fully transparent masks to break through the communications barrier created by opaque masks.

Engineers have been using a specially designed app since the first UK lockdown, to help translate spoken words into written text on their phone, so transparent masks now boost that personal approach. The firm will still use see-through visors as an option should customers prefer that.

Michael Horwood, stakeholder engagement manager at UK Power Networks, comments: “We are proud to be equipping frontline customer support staff with see-through masks.

“We are always looking for new ways to help supporting customers and we know it’s a particularly difficult time for some people to communicate and connect on a personal level during the ongoing pandemic.”

A spokesperson for the Royal Association for Deaf people (RAD), one of UK Power Networks’ Power Partners, says: “Clear face masks provide accessibility for deaf people, and help make everyone more aware of the everyday challenges and barriers that deaf people face, with regards to lip-reading and effective communication, including seeing facial expressions. People are likely to feel more relaxed and confident when a clear mask is worn as it makes lip-reading possible.

“Myself, especially being a lip reader and profoundly deaf, it is really helpful when people wear a clear face covering as it enables me to understand, unlike an ordinary mask that makes it impossible to lip-read. It also helps in the terms that we do not need to ask people to remove their face covering, or write things down.”

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