Uncharted Waters: Navigating During a Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world has been referred to as “unprecedented,” “once-in-a-generation” and called an event that is having “global repercussions.” All of that is true—but people in the industrial hygiene supply chain have real-world, life-and-death decisions to make. And that is not hyperbole. This once-in-a-generation crisis has presented companies with unprecedented circumstances.

One of the main challenges facing employers during the pandemic is the need to ensure that workers in the industrial hygiene/safety arena are staying safe and are in compliance with governmental guidelines. Unfortunately, pandemic planning is not generally top-of-mind to many organizations.

Pandemics occur less frequently than other crises (i.e., hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes), so we have not experienced many of them—certainly nothing of this scale—in order to test that current systems are resilient and adaptable. Therefore, companies are navigating their businesses and their workforces through largely uncharted waters.

It is imperative to remember that the COVID-19 pandemic is novel; consequently, information on how to respond to the disease is evolving. As Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and America’s top disease expert, recently said: “You don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline.” The same could be said for information on how to respond to the virus; it is crucial to keep up with information about this evolving disease—as the crisis evolves.

Organizations looking for guidance on where to start in their pandemic response have looked to information provided by public health agencies, such as the CDC. In addition, OSHA has recently published a document called “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19” that has been particularly helpful as a starting point for many businesses.

Measures to Ensure Worker Safety & Compliance

Companies are employing various measures to ensure that workers in industrial hygiene, manufacturing, eCommerce, chemical plants, oil/gas and construction industries are staying safe and complying with state and federal guidelines during the pandemic.

Suppliers are providing PPE to national industries that are considered essential, such as food processing, agriculture, utilities, oil/gas and transportation. Tingley Rubber, for example, has seen an increase in demand for their products in the food & beverage industry, due to increased sanitation within the plants—to keep them free from contamination.

Manufacturing jobs and plants continue to implement flexible work hours and staggered shifts. Those who are able to do so are working remotely. Suppliers’ customers are working harder than ever to ensure the safety and health of employees.

Those companies that manufacture critical safety equipment have taken aggressive actions to serve their customers’ needs, while ensuring their own employees’ safety. For example, in Pennsylvania, Governor Wolf imposed tightly controlled access to manufacturing and service facilities. Jackie Cappucci, Corporate Communications Specialist at Industrial Scientific, stated, “Our facilities are closed to the public, and all staff non-critical to our manufacturing and service capabilities are working remotely until further notice.”

Such statements have been echoed throughout industry. Aside from requiring social distancing in all areas of the workplace, they are also restricting access to portions of their facilities, in some cases, to increase the cadence of cleaning and sterilization for areas where employees are present. Companies are also allowing increased access to hand sanitizer for employees on-site and encouraging heightened self-hygiene.

Without fail, all companies who participated in this article’s content stated, in some form, that they feel a responsibility to keep workers healthy, so they can continue to provide much-needed PPE or services to workers on the frontlines of this pandemic. Many companies also are continuing to offer benefits and pay to employees who fall ill and cannot work. Commented Stephanie Lynch, Ph.D., Product Manager, OHD Global: “It is inspiring to see the commitment people have to keeping people at work without sacrificing safety.”

Fight Mixed Messaging: Communication is Key

One of the toughest hurdles with this crisis is that, although it affects every part of American life, the local, state and federal government’s responses have been varied, inconsistent and—at times—very confusing. Some counties or cities, for example, issued a “stay-at-home” order weeks before their state did and, in some states, there is no such order. The same is true for what is or isn’t considered an “essential business.” This lack of messaging coherence has made it difficult for many companies to ensure they are doing what needs to be done.

Disruptions in the supply chain come into play when there are state-by-state, rather than national guidelines. In some cases, this can result in lost freight costs if, for example, a company places an order and is not aware of closed shipping docks or a forced closure after the order has been placed.

Keeping remote workers informed and connected is of utmost importance. To this end, Tingley Rubber’s advanced business continuity planning “provides all its remote workers with excellent connectivity and productivity, to maintain uninterrupted service and flow of products to our warehouses and customers,” stated Tingley’s Jim Towey, VP of Marketing.

The good news is that, despite the confusion, companies are working together or within their own branches in other parts of the world, to provide their employees with cohesive guidelines and meet local requirements. For example, SKC consulted with SKC Asia, who had a thorough plan due to strict governmental regulations there. Their UK division had a similar plan in place already. This type of joint effort has been invaluable.

Industrial hygienists face unique challenges, as recommendations have changed nearly every day—especially at the start of the pandemic. For example, masks were not recommended for everyone outside the home, previously—now, voluntary use of masks is recommended (as of this writing).

According to SKC Corporate Industrial Hygienist, Lucinette Alvarado: “We continue to monitor local, national and international news. Based on credible information, we make changes to our plan and try to maintain an agile mindset. While many protective measures are voluntary, we follow them anyway.”

Addressing Workers’ Anxiety

Many Americans are anxious, often due to the above-mentioned confusion, in light of the mixed messaging and uncertainty about the virus. This doesn’t stop when employees enter their workplace. There are many things companies are doing to address their employees’ confusion and anxiety.

Clear communication is key. Workers need to feel that their health and safety are important and that they will be taken care of.

For example, the wife of SKC’s President has been sewing masks for every employee who is working on site. Tingley’s communication updates take the form of a weekly, virtual “Town Hall Meeting” with all employees staying updated. Mathew Farnworth, Vice President, Heskins, LLC, stressed the need to “provide reassurance and understanding that this current situation will be temporary…and to be flexible and understand that the personal effect will vary per employee.”

At Bullard, they are having open communication throughout the company via video messages two-three times a week from their company’s leaders, along with Q&A sessions with HR and team managers. They have also formed “COVID-19 Response and Market” teams that meet daily to address concerns from employees and stay on top of the latest information from the CDC, and local and state governments.

Companies need to develop and disseminate clear guidance for their employees. It is also important to clearly communicate the state of the company. This might mean revising guidance several times, in light of new information. OHD’s Lynch stated, “We continue to try to get ahead of the virus and encourage employees be patient and flexible in these uncertain times.”

Industrial hygienists are the perfect individuals to help the workforce understand the risks and realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. ACGIH’s Connie DiNuoscio, Digital Media & Design Manager stated, “It is essential that we be diligent consumers of information from trusted sources, such as the CDC, health departments and scholarly journals; and we combine background knowledge in epidemiology, particle physics, biology and the hierarchy of controls. Using this sound science we can explain to individuals how to best protect themselves and those around them. Our responsibility in these times is to remain true to our creed of anticipation, recognition, evaluation, control and confirm.”

Stepping up company-wide emails; increased social media postings; webinars and presentations; zoom meetings—all of these tools are being employed by companies to keep their employees, their customers and their stakeholders informed. Averred SKC’s Alvarado, these things are being done “…so that we all swim in the same direction toward the common goal of personal and professional survival and continuation of our mission: Science. Serving People.”

Inquiring Minds Want to Know…

Companies are also reporting an unprecedented number of inquiries. In the case of PPE manufacturers/suppliers, the sales, customer support and tech support teams have inquiries about PPE products and inventory. Many of the companies produce materials that are used by many manufacturers as component parts in critical industries. In some cases, non-typical industries are requesting products, such as retail stores.

At OHD, they have reported a lot of questions about fit-testing in light of COVID-19. The ongoing challenge is to communicate effectively and efficiently, along with adapting to new concerns and a higher volume of questions.

Bullard makes products that protect healthcare workers and first responders on the frontlines of the pandemic, such as powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs) with hoods and face shields. The PAPRs with hoods offer a mobile solution to healthcare workers, while delivering clean air to the user; face shields protect workers against airborne hazards.

Commented Mitch Kiser, Industrial Respiratory Protection Product Manager for Bullard, “We are seeing a demand for our industrial supplied air respirators (SARs) with our breathing tubes and headtops. SARs allow workers to be tethered to a portable pump or compressed air box that delivers clean breathing air to the user. This respiratory solution is perfect for users who are working on the frontlines of drive-through COVID-19 testing areas that need protection.”

Tyndale’s customers have maintained their purchases of the arc-rated and flame resistant (AR/FR) clothing their workers need to stay safe on the job. According to Emily Keough, Sr. Marketing Specialist, Tyndale, “In some cases, this means buying additional quantities of protective clothing to ensure employees are not sharing AR/FR and that each employee has access to the right amount of AR/FR as they work around-the-clock to maintain vital energy infrastructure.”

These companies continue to be creative in looking for ways to protect healthcare workers who risk their lives every day.

All Hands on Deck: Contributing to the Crisis

On a granular level, the contributions to the crisis vary—but the mission and commitment of each company is impressive. They are handling challenges that were once the stuff of sci-fi movies or dystopian future novels. Shifting priorities, adjusted forecasts and, especially, flexibility rule the day.

Due to the impact of COVID-19, many of the industries companies usually serve are experiencing slowdowns, while others—such as food processing, agriculture, transportation—are showing increased needs for certain products. This means companies need to continually adjust their forecasts, as well as their factories’ capacities, in order to respond to shifting demands.

At Heskins, for example, they have automated manufacturing capabilities to produce or convert high-output volumes of ejected parts, such as die-cut polycarbonate face shields and safety signage, as well as line-marking products to help implement social distancing measures in various scenarios. OHD manufactures and sells devices that test the fit and seal of respiratory protection that is used by first responders and healthcare workers.

Dräger has seen a significant increase in demand worldwide for its ventilators, the corresponding accessories and PPE. They are currently producing nearly twice the ventilators as before. “Our goal is to maintain business operations with the purpose to fulfill our duty to provide our technology for life to as many as needed. This motivates us to give our best every day, even in these difficult times,” said Stefan Dräger, Chairman of the Executive Board of Drägerwerk Verwaltungs AG.

To meet the high demand for its products, Dräger has significantly expanded production capacities in recent weeks; production facilities for respiratory masks in Sweden and South Africa are working at full capacity and are running around-the-clock. The fact that the company invested in a future-oriented factory with state-of-the-art industrial production methods several years ago is certainly paying off here.

Industrial Scientific manufactures durable goods and provides supporting informational services that protect workers in numerous infrastructure-critical industries. Their business and continuity teams have taken aggressive action to make sure that manufacturing, shipping and receiving teams are fully operational and able to meet customers’ expectations for receiving critical equipment on time. Their global service team is also fully staffed, so instrument repairs can be handled quickly.

Bullard has increased its PAPR production by 10 times what it was able to do—mainly because of cross-training employees into other product areas in manufacturing plants. This enables them to meet the needs of not just those on the frontlines of the pandemic—but also those in critical, essential infrastructure areas, like utilities, road/bridge workers, tunnels, etc., who rely on hard hats, face protection and respiratory protection.

Balancing Act: Training & Safety

Many companies are hiring new workers to handle various tasks—including the huge jump in eCommerce; the need for PPE to be manufactured for medical needs; the food/beverage sector’s need to continue producing food, etc. This has created a huge strain on new employee orientation processes. This is not the time to cut corners in the interest of speed, even though time is of the essence.

Balancing the needs of the many with the safety of new trainees (and the integrity of their processes) is no easy feat. Cority’s Sean Baldry warned, “What organizations need to realize is that their responsibility to ensure that their workers are adequately protected from harm doesn’t change in the midst of a pandemic. They still need to make sure that workers are properly trained to execute their tasks safely.”

There are huge opportunities to leverage technology to assist organizations in managing this training burden quickly and effectively. For example, this is a perfect opportunity to utilize e-learning platforms, such as traditional learning management systems or more flexible technologies, like microlearning apps, where training content can be built, assigned and consumed from a smartphone or tablet.

These options won’t completely eliminate all in-person training, but it will help companies bear some of the burden. This can help reduce person-to-person training, thus aligning with social distancing requirements, and allow workers to complete training remotely, so they are prepared to get to work more quickly. IHW

[Editor’s note: The following companies contributed to this article’s content. We thank them for their assistance and clarity during this incredibly stressful and challenging time: ACGIH, Bullard, Cority, Dräger, Heskins, LLC, Industrial Scientific, OHD Global, SKC, Tingley Rubber and Tyndale.]