All publicity is good publicity, or so the adage goes. But in the case of manufacturing and COVID-19, Matt Steele doesn’t agree.
“We don’t want to be a business (COVID) case for Columbia,” Steele said.
Steele is the vice president of operations for ThermAvant Technologies in Columbia. The company specializes in heat-absorbent technology often used in the aerospace industry. In mid-March, he was keeping close tabs on local cases of COVID-19.
ThermAvant was deemed essential due to its government contracts dealing with defense technology. Meaning, it had to figure out how to keep its doors open without contributing to local coronavirus caseloads.
Everyone who could work from home, did. But that still left the men and women who work on the production floor.
“Luckily our machines are 10 to 15 feet apart from each other,” Steele said. “We have basically thrown away our community food options, ordered a bunch of personal hand sanitizers. We also ordered surgical masks, what we were able to, as extra precautions.”
ThermAvant’s is a familiar story in manufacturing as the producers attempt to adjust their workflows to account for the long-term effects of COVID-19 on their industries. And the changes ThermAvant and plants across the state made in light of the COVID-19 pandemic may become part of manufacturing’s standard operations.
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BUSINESS WITH A NEW USUAL
Not all manufacturing operations lend themselves to social distancing. Workers in food processing plants often stand in close proximity to each other on factory lines. Despite usually wearing masks and personal protective equipment, break rooms also provide an opportunity for potential exposure.
An outbreak tied to meat processing in Saline County has given it the highest infection rate in Missouri, with 241 confirmed cases among 22,2761 people. When the Missouri Department of Health and Human Services deployed widespread testing at Triumph Foods in St. Joseph, 412 employees out of 2,367 that were tested showed positive results despite no visible symptoms.
COVID-19’s ability to spread quickly in places where people work in close proximity has manufacturers rethinking how their facilities run from the break room to the factory line.
“We don’t have the luxury of living without COVID-19 in the near future,” said Steven Burger, president of Burgers’ Smokehouse. “So, we have to figure out ways to live with it.”
Burgers’ Smokehouse was one of the plants that had to temporarily pause production because of COVID-19 among its employees. ConAgra in nearby Marshall also had to temporarily close in April.
“We must get these plants reopened safely as soon as possible,” U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler said in a press release regarding a letter she sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The letter urged the CDC to clarify safety procedures.
As for Burgers’, it’s already reopened, and it’s leaning heavily on the experience of fellow manufacturers and public health specialists.
“We tried to kind of keep our mind open to information from our colleagues in the industry but also national trade organizations … everybody from the CDC down to our local health department here,” Burger said.
Burger said parts of the workflow were easy to adjust. Plant managers redesigned some production lines to provide six feet of distance.
Others weren’t so easy.
In those areas, face masks and clear plastic screens are used to protect employees from accidental transmission.
“Six feet is our first line of defense,” he said. “With the face masks and other interventions, we think we can kind of accomplish what you can accomplish with six feet, but also with protective measures.”
But the adjustments extend beyond the production line. Entry screening, breaks and eating arrangements all must be considered.
Taking temperatures is now common when entering and sometimes during the day as well, as at Cargill and ThermAvant.
Many, like ThermAvant, Cargill, Burgers’ and Aurora Organic Dairy in Columbia have all restricted visitors to their facilities. At Cargill and Burgers’, more breaks have been added to decrease the number of employees in break rooms at a time.
Screens have been added between tables and the seating has been restricted to certain tables to keep workers spread out.
“These measures have been the new norm within our Marshall and California facilities for nearly a month,” media relations director for Cargill Daniel Sullivan said in late April.
The changes to the facilities have been so complete, though, it’s easy to overlook something that would have previously been innocuous.
Hartzler took a virtual tour of the Cargill plant in California in late April. Plant managers were walking her through the changes made on the production floor when she spotted a row of chairs in the background. The chairs were much closer together than the six-foot standard that had been meticulously employed to every other facet of the production floor.
The chairs were immediately removed.
The observation speaks to the totality of the changes at these facilities. Things that were once ordinary, like a row of chairs, now pose a potential public health risk. It also speaks to the importance of cooperation within the industry. The Cargill plant in California has frequent conversations with Burger’s team, each learning from the other.
“I really think it’s a matter of trying to explore together what our best practices are,” Burger said. “As this situation has unfolded really everybody in the public and the private sector has constantly evolved.”
KEEPING UP PRODUCTION
Although there has been anxiety about maintaining the national food supply, not all producers have felt the pinch in production due to COVID-related facility closures.
Aurora Organic Dairy said its production actually increased. While many dairies provide milk on contract to schools, Aurora is a strictly retail dairy. With people eating more meals at home, sales increased.
Sonja Tuitele, director of communications for Aurora, said the facility also had the benefit of managing its own supply chain – something ThermAvant has been working on since the beginning of 2020, but is now pursuing in earnest.
ThermAvant works together with out-of-state suppliers, particularly in California, which posed a problem during state lockdowns.
“We had to write support letters for them for them to maintain their operations to stay open,” Steele said. “Obviously, we have been trying to bring every one of those external features … in house.”
Not only will it help guarantee supply-chain consistency in light of possible outbreaks in the future, he said, but it will help decrease the risk of exposure during equipment transit.
“At least we will be able to control some of that unknown,” Steele said.
Whether by removing a row of chairs or stopping production to clean and prevent further spread of infection, the industry is being tested.
From Burger’s perspective, though, the greatest asset must be flexibility.
People need food, and Burger is in the business of making it. He understands the importance of keeping his plant open, but he’s also aware of the steep learning curve his plant and plants like it across the state will have to climb to not only stay open, but keep their employees safe.
“The key I think for both the public and private sector, is for everyone to keep an open mind and learn as much as we can about the science of the virus and let that dictate how we proceed,” he said. “That lets us get back to some sense of normal and yet be cognizant of the pandemic.”