Manufacturers are contending with the risk COVID-19 still poses to their workforces.
In accordance with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s new executive order greenlighting the sector to “open in phases” beginning this week, manufacturers in the state will be required to implement enhanced safety strategies to prevent further spread of the deadly virus.
“If you’re one of the people who is going back to work, we need you to be scrupulous about best practices both inside the workplace and outside so neither you, nor your family, nor your coworkers get sick,” Whitmer said at a press conference on May 7.
Expanding workforce safety is the top concern at Holland-based metal fabricator Agritek Industries Inc., said company president Larry Kooiker. Under the state’s stay-at-home executive order, the company continued small-scale operations as an essential business, but restoring normal functions with returning workers will still prove complicated.
“We’re probably going to have to do a better job of social distancing and taking people’s temperatures,” Kooiker told MiBiz before Whitmer’s announcement. “The workers that were left here have all worked here for a decade or more. This is our core, very trustworthy, very responsible bunch. As we bring people back, we have a little bit more of a worry, because then you start getting … employees that you don’t know as well and it’s a little harder to keep it under control. We will have to tighten up our measures.”
Manufacturers that are restarting some or all of their operations this week are entering “a brave new world,” said John Walsh, president of the Michigan Manufacturers Association.
In addition to guidelines from the state, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), manufacturers are preparing for restarts armed with best practices from essential businesses that remained open during the shutdown and also those that have already reopened in other heavily industrialized areas.
Manufacturing accounts for about 19 percent of Michigan’s economy; only about 5 percent of manufacturers in the state remained open throughout the shutdown to provide essential goods and services, according to Whitmer.
“The fact that we did have some manufacturers continue to operate because they were essential businesses proved that you can operate safely and productively,” Walsh told MiBiz. “We’ve learned a lot, not just here but worldwide. Some of our larger worldwide corporations have provided a great deal of instruction and education throughout the industry.”
Manufacturers are already familiar with mitigating workplace hazards for the safety of their employees. That experience will come into play while identifying and implementing the new safety procedures, which are surprisingly straightforward, according to Walsh.
“I took a deep dive into CDC, World Health Organization and OSHA regulations and they’re all remarkably similar and clear,” he said. “Sometimes regulatory agencies can go on at great length and you can’t understand them, but in this case, the existing regulations are rather clear.”
Manufacturers are required by the state to conduct pre-work screenings, implement dedicated entry points, require masks or face shields where social distancing is not possible and train workers on the transmission of COVID-19 and use of personal protective equipment.
Companies also will have to support employees requesting to stay home in the event of a family crisis caused by COVID-19, diagnosis or exposure to the virus. In accordance with a previous executive order, employers are prohibited from punishing employees for staying home because they are sick or think that they may have been exposed to the virus.
“Follow these (new safety processes) up with well-communicated company policies that encourage employees who don’t feel well to call in, to stay home, to understand that their job is not at risk and that health is first,” Walsh said.
In addition to state-mandated safety practices, many West Michigan manufacturers are responding to the crisis by creating “infectious disease management teams” with both management and non-management staff to establish ready-to-go response plans, according to Walsh.
Businesses have the responsibility to demonstrate they have taken actions to prevent the spread of the virus, according to Jeff Jackson, managing director at Grand Rapids-based BlueWater Partners LLC.
Manufacturing companies that BlueWater Partners works with are adjusting workflows on the production floor “so their hourly workers can be safe,” Jackson said. That will result in a loss of productivity, although manufacturers that have not done so already can offset that by implementing lean production practices while still “using their space in a more safe fashion,” he said.
Manufacturers that have been shut down during the pandemic will return to an environment where volume is down, and shop floors that are “not laid out in a way that keeps people away from each other” may have flare-ups of the virus that cause employees to feel unsafe at work, according to Jackson.
“Short term, they have to take a look at where they need barriers to limit handoffs and stagger employees and design their shop floor so that they can get the same productivity out of their shop with all of the precautions in place,” he said. “That’s a big deal because, on day one, it’s going to be a lot of new ways of working, productivity is going to drop and that’s going to hurt them as well.”
Manufacturers also have to be prepared for more public outbreaks of the virus and for many of the changes to plant floors and workflows to remain in place for months.
“Businesses need to be responsible for maintaining safe work practices going forward so that if this virus flares up again or the next one comes, we can manage the economic impact,” Jackson said. “If you don’t take this into consideration and you think this is temporary and just go back to the way it was, you’re just setting yourself up for failure again.”
Still, Agritek’s Kookier said he is skeptical that the stringent new safety protocols will stick around in his factory forever.
“I would say these changes are medium term,” he said. “I can’t picture a guy two years from now running around with a mask and not shaking hands. Slowly, our culture will return once we get a vaccine and people lose the fear — just like people used to be so scared to borrow money because they got burned so bad in 2008 by being heavily leveraged. It only took about two or three years to get back into leveraging.”
MiBiz Senior Reporter Mark Sanchez contributed to this report.