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How Factories Can Establish a Coronavirus-Conscious Work Environment

Following factory closures due to COVID-19, manufacturers are eager to get back to work. But as these facilities reopen, managers and employees will need to navigate a new normal on the factory floor due to health considerations.

Establishing the proper safety precautions—from social distancing to cleaning—can mean the difference between being able to stay operational and facing another temporary closure and costly pause in production. For instance, a factory in Guatemala had more than 200 workers test positive after it allegedly failed to quarantine sick employees, leading it to shut its doors for two weeks in May.

“In the near and medium term, as demand begins rebounding, the regions that were able to contain the pandemic and resume normal production will have an obvious advantage,” said Sebastien Breteau, CEO of quality control firm Qima.

Aside from adhering to government health mandates to remain open, instituting measures to keep employees safe is a human resources issue. In some countries, workers are reluctant to return to factories after sheltering with family in their villages during their furloughs. “The biggest concern that [factory management has is] workers are not happy to rush back to work until they feel that there’s safety,” said Rajan Kamalanathan, vice president global CSR and sustainability at testing and inspection company Bureau Veritas. Therefore, establishing trust in health precautions is a first step to convince them to return.

As a starting point for safety, companies should consult their local guidelines, since each country has stipulated different rules depending on how severe the threat level is.

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“The key components in any practices to ensure safety for workers include prevention measures, a response system if the factory has a confirmed case, and a recovery system for restarting work at the factory after a quarantine or lockdown while keeping workers safe,” said Breteau.

Awareness and adjustments

One of the most important preventative measures is establishing education and awareness activities. Vogue International Agencies’ factory in Ethiopia has been taking employees for small group sessions in the workers’ local language that cover what the virus is and how to avoid infection. Televisions on the production lines and PA systems are also used to spread an understanding of COVID-19 and avoid alarm.

To physically prevent and monitor the potential spread of COVID-19, factories are adjusting some of their practices and layouts. Neelkamal International’s Kenyan factory can typically run 17 sewing lines, but it has currently reduced production to 12 to 13 lines to give workers more space, resulting in higher real estate costs. In addition, the manufacturer has placed fiberglass dividers between workers on the lines. “Our lines are set up vertically and not horizontally, so fortunately each worker is facing the [next] worker’s back,” said Aditya Awtani, CEO, garment division of Neelkamal International.

Vogue International’s plant in Egypt had to adapt by transitioning some storage space to allow more distance between workers, but its larger 600,000-square-foot Ethiopian facility was able to maintain its usual arrangement, in part thanks to a production line that uses a conveyor system.

Social distancing precautions can also extend beyond production lines to other elements of workers’ interactions. For instance, Vogue needed to add buses to transport workers to its facility since capacity in the vehicles was halved. In its Ethiopian plant, the manufacturer has about 800 resident employees, necessitating further distancing measures in the dorms. The factory owner has also designated quarantine rooms in the dorms and factory in case a worker shows symptoms of the coronavirus.

When maintaining a safe distance is not possible with a full factory, another option is to stagger shifts. Breteau suggests creating about three teams of workers who all work different hours. This would allow a factory to quarantine the specific team affected if an employee is found to test positive, while keeping the rest of the workers active. Factories can also establish zones within a facility, with workers assigned to a specific area. Items that need to cross from one zone to another can then be passed off through a pickup at the edge of the zone.

Another best practice is maintaining cleanliness. Companies should offer personal protective equipment to workers, such as gloves and masks. Sanitization and hand-washing stations can also be placed around a facility to limit the spread of the virus.

Qima suggests disinfecting the factory equipment and work stations at the end of every shift. “This is something that may be easier for bigger factories, which may have a dedicated cleaning team, or outsource to professionals,” said Breteau. “In smaller factories, such sanitation is more likely to be done by the workers themselves, which creates challenges as they are not trained cleaners.” If workers are taking on cleaning themselves, questions about labor compliance also come up, including whether this task is being done on the clock or as off-the-book overtime.

Due to the added number of procedures and policies to track, auditing is playing an even more crucial role. With travel restrictions and other barriers to having an auditor visit in person, some inspections are taking place remotely with the help of live-streaming or video chats. “We found that we can get to a certain level of granularity… so you don’t need to physically be in the factory to complete some of this work,” Kamalanathan said.

Technology is also coming into play to help factories create a safer workspace. Vogue is thinking of ways to reduce touchpoints, including replacing fingerprint scanners for attendance with face scanners. Experts suggest temperature checks on workers, but Neelkamal International has gone a step further with thermal cameras.

Some factories are also creating new roles that are responsible for overseeing the health and safety of workers, such as a head of hygiene. In certain countries, it is common to have a doctor or medical personnel on staff in normal times, but manufacturers are expanding these teams. For instance, in Ethiopia Vogue expanded its full-time nursing staff and increased its doctor visits from once to three times per week.

Capacity and costs

Even with the added health precautions put in place, experts have not seen a hit to productivity during this period.

According to Erica van Schaik, group general manager at Vogue International Agencies, what has made a difference is reducing panic through communication. “There has not been any change in productivity or efficiency as long as [workers] understand what we are doing and why we are doing it,” she said. Bureau Veritas has actually seen safety measures benefit productivity due to the social care.

While productivity might not be affected, factors including social distancing, reduced demand and disruptions in raw material supply mean that factories are generally running at about 50 percent capacity, according to Breteau.

However, the cost of the implementation of these health and safety measures comes as factories are already stretched due to cancelled orders and delayed payments, further exacerbating their financial strains. Smaller factories with less capital available may not be able to survive. As demand begins to pick up, there are added concerns in what could be a contracted number of suppliers.

“Because retailers and brands are now placing orders, they’ve now turned the spigot on,” said Rick Horwitch, vice president global retail lead and supply chain strategy at Bureau Veritas. “Theoretically there aren’t as many factories left to do things. So is that going to promote bad habits in health and safety, bad habits in quality, bad habits in CSR?”

Retailers are paying attention to what their suppliers are doing during this time, whether it is overtime or hygiene issues. However, these partners also have a role to play if they want factories to remain open.

The cost of running a facility like a factory, said van Schaik, can add up quickly, and “specifically if you have residents and food facilities where you need to feed the people three times a day and you need to take care of them 24 hours a day for seven days a week. So, the cost of running facilities is very high, and the interruption of orders has a massive impact onto the factory…It’s very important that the buyers support the factories as much as possible.”