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Returning to Work in the COVID-19 Era: Emerging Best Practices in the Manufacturing Environment

In many areas of the country, manufacturers are re-opening their facilities after prolonged lockdowns during the peak periods of coronavirus infections in their respective states. Other facilities, deemed essential businesses, remained open throughout the pandemic, but have been operating with a skeleton crew and are looking to ramp up production.

As companies plan for the return, the most important consideration in bringing employees back into the workplace is to prioritize the health and safety of both your employees and your customers. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) has recently published a great resource that describes what leading manufacturers are doing to address this issue1.

According to NAM’s report, the top areas to consider in developing or fine-tuning your return to work plan are:

  1. Limiting site access to mitigate exposure
  2. Workstation measures to promote social distancing
  3. Facilities and traffic management
  4. Shift and team design
  5. Illness or diagnosis response
  6. Essential travel policies
  7. Return of nonessential workers

Let’s take a deeper look into these areas and review how manufacturing companies should prepare.

Limiting Site Access to Mitigate Exposure

In order to limit the number of people at their facilities and promote social distancing, many companies are eliminating all visitor access, unless such visitors are critical for operations, like maintenance and service technicians. Companies are discovering that meetings typically held on-site can be easily transferred to a virtual setting, with the help of applications like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. The companies who are permitting visitors to enter their buildings are performing temperature screenings with non-touch laser devices and/or asking employees and visitors to complete self-certification questionnaires. These questionnaires ask for disclosure on the presence of COVID-19 symptoms, contact with persons who have tested positive, and travel to certain known COVID-19 hotspots around the world. Should companies decide to take such precautions, they should factor the measures they must put in place to protect the privacy of the workers being tested, and what the rules and regulations are regarding compensation for the time they may spend waiting in line to be tested each day.

Promoting Social Distancing at Workstations

Companies should also consider the design and layout of their facilities to determine if maintaining social distancing is possible, or if the layout would need to be re-configured in order to do so. All companies should ensure that there is at least six feet of distance between workers. Some companies have had to deliberately slow down production lines to allow for appropriate social distancing. Others have installed plexiglass or other barriers in between individual workstation in areas where proper social distancing could not be achieved due to space limitations. Companies should also consider the tools, wearable equipment, and technology that prior to COVID-19 may have been regularly shared among workers (i.e. walkie-talkies, radios, helmets, gloves, goggles, etc.) and whether additional equipment must be purchased to avoid sharing, or the equipment can be properly sanitized in between uses. Additionally, the CDC recommends wearing facial coverings to limit person-to-person transmission, as well as reduce the chance of surface or airborne contamination.

Facilities and Traffic Management

Thorough cleaning and sanitizing should be scheduled for all areas within the facility, and as frequently as possible for high-traffic areas. Companies should identify the areas in which employees congregate in large groups (i.e. break rooms, cafeteria, etc.) and discourage congregation where proper social distancing cannot be maintained or in areas with poor ventilation. Break rooms and cafeterias should be closed, or seating rearranged, to promote social distancing for employees using those facilities. Hand sanitizers should be provided to employees in several locations, and if possible, any high touch fixtures should be replaced with automated versions (i.e. touchless sinks, touchless paper towel dispensers, etc.) Where possible, doors should be left open to mitigate the number of people touching doorknobs and handles. Many companies have also transitioned traditional time clocks to touchless versions or other technology to make the shift change process move faster and reduce the gathering of employees around such areas at the start and end of each shift.

Shift and Team Design

Companies should promote fewer face-to-face interactions and try to employ technologies that eliminate or mitigate the number of interactions employees have to have with other employees. Companies have designated team workspaces for certain teams to limit travel out of that area and reduce potential exposure to members of other company teams or functional areas.

Illness and Diagnosis Response Plan

Despite the best plans and intentions, employees may still contract the virus. A return to work plan must consider what will be done when an employee reports having symptoms and what will happen if an employee or group of employees test positive for the virus. If this happens, contact tracing will be important to determine where the affected employee has been and who they have interacted with at the company to determine who else should be tested; however, it is also important to design a response that respects and ensures the privacy of all affected individuals.

Travel Policies

Business travel has essentially been at a stand-still since March 2020. In situations where travel becomes necessary, companies have adopted various policies, to include using personal vehicles instead of rental vehicles, where possible; providing protocols for cleaning/disinfecting hotel rooms; and, dining policies that include only takeout or delivery options. If you are sending employees to a customer location, they must understand and respect the protocols put in place by that customer and respect those policies while they are on-site.

Return of Nonessential Workers

The biggest workplace shift resulting from the pandemic is the work from home option. Most companies have leveraged the ability for their “nonessential” workers in operations, finance, and other administrative teams to work from home during the pandemic. Some companies expect those employees to come back to the office as soon as possible, if they are able to and do not have familial obligations, while others are given leeway to transition back after they can provide proper care for their children and loved ones. At the same time, some employees are eager to return to the office while others are apprehensive and fear exposure. In determining who should return first, companies are prioritizing roles with greater on-site effectiveness, which cannot be easily replicated working remotely. Companies also have to consider the length of travel, interstate travel, and the health status of the employee and their family members. All of those factors can play a role in a whether an employee can or wishes to return to the office or manufacturing facility.

Whatever the situation is for your company, the most important part of any plan to get employees back to work is to communicate clearly and often with your employees about on-site safety protocols and explain the company’s return-to-work philosophy, so that your employees who may feel uneasy participating feel safe and contribute to the safety of others. 

1National Association of Manufacturers Report: New Operational Practices to Consider in the Time of COVID-19, May 2020

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