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Manufacturers provide a model for reopening

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America is reopening. But to stay open, employers need to do more than encourage hand washing and social distancing. They need to think about employee health and safety as a comprehensive ecosystem that includes sanitizing workspaces, redesigning traffic patterns, wearing face coverings, and possibly even taking workers’ temperatures. Employers also will have to consider which employees need to be in the office and which can continue to work remotely.

These and similar actions have been tried and proven to work well for many American companies thus far. While most Americans were asked to stay at home beginning in mid-March, most manufacturers remained open, carefully implementing new protocols to keep workers and communities safe. Now, as the economy restarts, their practices can be used as a model to protect all of us from COVID-19.

A lot is at stake to reopen smartly. The United States cannot afford a relapse but, at the same time, the nation’s economy cannot remain closed indefinitely. This is not a simplistic, self-interested matter of putting profits over people, as some critics contend. Many Americans — whether employed in manufacturing, like our members, or in service and other industries — do not have the luxury of working from home; for them, being enabled to resume work safely is a life-sustaining matter of taking care of their families and themselves. Manufacturers will continue to invest heavily in these new health and safety measures not only to protect their workers but to protect the wider populace as well. To this end, the Manufacturing Leadership Council at the National Association of Manufacturers released a guide of operational practices that its members are using to great effect.

One of the biggest operational changes which many manufacturers have instituted is visitor restrictions. The only outsiders allowed into workplaces have been those who have vital business dealings — and they are often only permitted to enter after completing questionnaires about their recent medical conditions. At some companies, both visitors and regular employees are required to have temperatures taken with non-touch laser devices; only those with normal-range readings are permitted to enter. Such personal intrusiveness was unacceptable before the pandemic, but now it could well become routine.

Many manufacturers on the front lines of the nation’s response also have made sure their workers were situated at least six feet apart. Where that was not practical, they have placed plexiglass or vinyl barriers between workers. They have instituted one-way corridors and made face coverings and hand washing mandatory.

Another major change involves the cleaning of surfaces. Many companies already were cleaning and disinfecting high-touch areas at the beginning and end of shifts; the novel coronavirus compelled them to disinfect more frequently and with greater care — and that works. Many disinfectants can kill COVID-19. The Environmental Protection Agency identifies the disinfectants that it has approved for this purpose on its List N. Many manufacturers of those products have worked overtime to increase supplies of these approved materials; so far, they have kept up with demand and remain upbeat that they can continue to do so. To assist in that effort, the Department of Homeland Security declared disinfectant manufacturers and their workers to be essential.

Deep cleaning throughout the day also has been effective and helpful in reassuring workers. Some companies have scheduled cleaning crews to come throughout during the day rather than at night to demonstrate to employees that safety measures are a priority.

If manufacturers’ experience is a guide, some pre-COVID-19 practices won’t return for a while. One is nonessential travel. Another is eating at company cafeterias; many of these have simply been closed. Even clustering around the water cooler or in break rooms is discouraged today.

A few of the new practices touch on matters that were previously personal. For example, decisions about which personnel can come into the workplace involve the distance employees traveled to get to work, their own health status, or the health status of family members. Such questions must be handled carefully, and employers should be open to telecommuting when possible.

Other new ways of working are mostly common-sensical. People who feel ill need to stay home; in some cases, if people can work from home, they may be asked to continue doing so. Staggered reentry into the office or workplace in some cases will reduce the dangers of congestion, which is a major cause of the virus’s spread.

Taken together, these changes, though sometimes jarring, continue to make a positive difference. Their success is proof that the economy can reopen safely — if we all take the proper precautions and work to protect one another.

Jay Timmons is president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers. Steve Caldeira is president and CEO of the Household & Commercial Products Association.

Tags American manufacturing Coronavirus COVID-19 economic reopening Industrial hygiene Safety engineering Workplace safety

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