By Tony Del Sesto
With most states relaxing COVID-19 restrictions, factories around the U.S. are coming back online. But there are challenges when restarting manufacturing facilities that have been shut down for months on end.
You can’t just flip a switch to get everything back to normal.
Most manufacturers already know that. They have shutdown and startup procedures baked into their list of standard operations. These usually cover everything from machinery preparation to product qualification.
But does that mean everything is ready to go? Probably not.
It is very unlikely that any of these startup procedures were written with a pandemic in mind.
The safety of employees and stakeholders are the primary consideration that must drive operational changes. However, this is not just about health and safety. A COVID outbreak or hotspot in your facility will seriously disrupt operations. In some cases, it could shut down your entire facility.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Labor have already published several guides for the preparation of workplaces. If you are not familiar with those guidelines, you need to get familiar with them immediately. They are available online at OSHA.gov.
Rather than repeat those guidelines here, let’s focus on how to apply them within the context of restarting a factory and how that can impact startup operations.
Unsurprisingly, most challenges will be with how and where people congregate. Let’s review a few common areas.
1. Entering/exiting the facility
While this might sound simple, this is a significant challenge in most factories. In some larger facilities, hundreds of people enter and exit the building at the same time. You will need to move people quickly while still practicing social distancing and performing temperature screening.
For temperature screening, systems that can handle high speed and high volume testing already are available at reasonable cost. Anybody who has traveled to Asia post-SARS has seen these systems at airports and border crossings. If you are moving a lot of people, these systems are worth the investment.
With the addition of some digital technology, you also can add statistical analysis to better balance entry into your facilities. If you find one entrance being used too much, you can stagger entry timing by splitting your entries by shift, process, line or department. Operations will dictate how and when you can do this.
With some careful planning and a little creativity, you will be able to separate entries much more than you may have thought possible.
Lastly, for larger facilities, add more entry/exit points and assign people to designated entries/exits to avoid overcrowding. The practice of separating exits from entries also should be implemented.
2. Station proximity and masks
The current guideline for social distancing is six feet. Realistically, for most factory lines, this is simply not possible. Manufacturers cannot afford to reconfigure entire factories. This is where masks become a necessity.
The simplest solution is to have your entire staff wear masks. Masks are finally becoming readily available and, as a result, the costs are also decreasing. Masks work. Think of the cost as an insurance policy to keep your facility operational.
One important point to note: Not all masks are the same and you need to be aware of the application. For example, N95 and KN95 masks both filter effectively, but KN95 masks have a lower flow rate. Let’s say you have an employee running up and down a ladder all day. The last thing you’d want is for that person to get dizzy from not being used to wearing a mask during physical activity.
This is another reason why 100% mask compliance becomes even more important. If all of your employees are wearing masks, the primary purpose becomes preventing the spread of COVID-19 as opposed to preventing oneself from becoming infected. This allows the use of higher flow rate masks and simplified, lower-cost face coverings.
3. Station setup
Anyone familiar with Lean will be familiar with a 5S setup for workstations. If you are not familiar with 5S you can learn more at the American Society for Quality at asq.org. When translated from Japanese, 5S refers to Organize, Orderliness, Cleanliness, Standardize and Discipline (Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, Seiketsu, Shitsuke).
It is common practice for stations to perform a 5S at the beginning and end of each shift change. It is obvious how a 5S setup can be helpful within a COVID-19 context. However, a few minor changes to standard operating procedures can provide additional improvement.
Two simple changes should be implemented at every station. The first is to add disinfectant. Cleaning and disinfecting are not the same, and the cost of adding disinfectant to a cleaning routine is minor. All commonly touched surfaces should be disinfected when cleaning. Second, add a disinfecting routine anytime the operator is changed at a station. While it is customary to run a 5S at the beginning and end of a shift, it is typically not done if operators change mid-shift. Any time personnel are changed, run a quick disinfectant routine.
4. Lunch and breaks
While this is similar to the issues discussed in entering/exiting the facility, there is one major difference. You can’t eat while wearing a face mask. So social distancing becomes mandatory in this situation. Most facility lunchrooms will quickly reach capacity if occupancy is suddenly reduced by 50% or more.
This leaves two alternatives. The first option is to add more space. Employees can wear masks when getting food and moving about to find seating or to return trays. Therefore, additional space is needed only for seating. While this sounds easy, some facilities will not be able to make the extra room.
The second alternative is to stagger schedules where operations permit. Since lunch often is associated with a mid-schedule break, this will involve staggering the start of different groups or shifts.
Most states dictate rules regarding meal breaks. Each manufacturer will need to review operations plans and decide which option is best for their facility to maintain compliance.
Most manufacturers have subcontractors visiting the factory throughout the day, doing everything from facility maintenance and machinery repair to material deliveries. There is no point to having your employees follow policy if you do not have a policy for other visitors to your facility. Policy compliance must be uniform.
Be sure to have the policy documented and communicated to all visiting subcontractors. Post the policies so they are visible everywhere subcontractors enter the building. Keep a record of non-compliance issues and send reports to the subcontractors so they know you take this seriously.
From an operations perspective, implement requirements as part of procurement contracts and add policy compliance as part of your subcontractor performance reports. By tying safety behavior to future business prospects, subcontractors will adapt quickly.
The above five points are only a few examples of how COVID-19 safety and preparedness can be applied across manufacturing operations.
It should now be the new normal to incorporate pandemic response into all standard operating procedures.
Now is the time to revisit your HR policies, including medical leave and health benefits; employee assistance plans; emergency medical response plans; and PR and crisis communications plans. And ask yourself: What are you doing to address employee morale?
Ignoring the impacts of COVID-19 can result in a disruption of operations, poor employee morale, and loss of brand goodwill. Many of the operational adjustments mentioned above are not costly. From a return on investment perspective, most companies will have recovered their investment by avoiding just a single day of downtime.
It is not just a matter of safety. It is also good for business.
Don’t wait until your employees become ill. Review and update your operation procedures before reopening your factory.
Tony Del Sesto is MxD’s Digital Manufacturing Technical Fellow.