Factory workers take Covid precautions

Managing fear and managing health: get the balance right

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As industry emerges from the survival stage of the Covid-19 crisis, complacency is one of the key challenges that manufacturing businesses need to guard against.

The environment created by Covid-19 has left many manufacturers facing a number of risks. From downtime costs and legal liability to customer loss and employee wellbeing, these risks are bigger than anything most executives will have ever experienced - with pressure increasing from every direction.

There’s no doubt that manufacturing organisations face significant operational challenges, more so than other industries, as frontline manufacturing staff can’t take their work to the relative safety of their homes. Plant leaders are therefore looking for ways to operate through the crisis – all while preparing for a potentially much longer period of heightened uncertainty regarding supply and demand, and a lasting need to maintain enhanced hygiene and physical distancing.

As the effects of coronavirus unfold, organisations are asking what actions they need to take to ensure business continuity whilst demonstrating compliance. With plant shutdowns having already inflicted multi-million losses on many organisations, manufacturers need to be thinking about how they should prepare for the rebound and how to increase their manufacturing and supply systems’ resilience.

As manufacturers reconfigure their operations to keep employees safe and respond to changes in the wider value chain, companies still need to maintain manufacturing performance. Physical distancing and remote-working policies will render traditional approaches obsolete, compelling companies to find new ways to manage plant-floor performance.

With complacency being a key enemy for manufacturers in the fight against Covid-19, organisations can’t afford any lapses. One simple way companies can mitigate their risks is by performing short audits on the plant floor, ideally using a mobile digital solution to capture data in real time. Documentation is crucial to reducing risk and audits are a key piece of that documentation, helping to protect employee health while demonstrating compliance and reducing liability risks. Companies that can’t prove they’re following government guidelines and recommendations could leave themselves open to costly lawsuits. Liability costs associated with lawsuits could eclipse downtime costs and extend far beyond the end of the pandemic.

As with most organisations across the globe, the manufacturing sector has seen a significant shift in the immediate need to transform digitally. However, unlike most who have altered their business models to provide their employees with the correct appliances, software and training to be able to work from the safety of their homes, manufacturers have had to deploy specific technologies in order to keep their employees working in the ‘office’.

The latest figures from CBI have highlighted how disruptive the global health crisis has been for the UK’s manufacturing sector, with Britain’s industrial output between March and June this year at its lowest level since its records began. And as several large production plants are only just beginning to re-open, predictions are pointing towards further decline. But in order to return to a ‘new normal’ organisations need technology, not only to resume business-critical operations but to keep staff safe and ensure their working environments meet regulatory guidelines.

Manufacturers find themselves needing to maintain quality and quantity to prevent shortages to both their customers and the supply chains they serve - but there are now new challenges that must be navigated when it comes to Covid-19 risks: managing fear and managing health.

Fear in the workforce means employees don’t show up to work, reducing productivity and driving up costs. Getting people to follow new health protocols is the second biggest challenge. Manufacturers may have protocols in place, but if a lawsuit happens in the future, how will they prove that the team followed those protocols? For instance, when taking temperatures, how do they prove it was done every shift? When it comes to cleaning and disinfecting, is there a record that someone actually checked it was done at the required frequency? How do plant managers build a record of verification that employees are maintaining appropriate spacing on the plant floor and in common areas?

Some factories have already embarked on a journey of digital transformation in order to maintain production, but are adhering to government guidelines to guarantee their employees’ safety and wellbeing. A number of automotive and aerospace manufacturers for example, have been using plant floor audit software to integrate Covid-19 safety questions into their regular plant floor audits, enabling them to continue to operate during the shutdown or start up safely. Ford recently revealed its factories have trialled wristbands that vibrate when their employees come within two metres of each other to help maintain social-distancing measures.

Many manufacturers are beginning to come out of the survival stage of the pandemic and into a recovery phase, giving them time to question the lessons that can be learnt from the crisis. Businesses will be able to use this opportunity to make significant changes to their operations in order to ensure they are more resilient and agile in the future – a study conducted across the UK before the crisis revealed that robust communication, detection of change and rapid decision-making add up to a better ability to overcome challenges. Systems and processes will be scrutinised for their weaknesses, and this will all boil down to a lack of real-time visibility across the plant floor.

The ever changing landscape of the manufacturing sector during the pandemic was a hard storm for decision-makers to weather, and the aftermath doesn’t look any easier. Supply and demand of products and services is at its most unstable, and adaptability remains paramount if manufacturers are able to survive this next stage.

But real-time data will significantly alleviate some of this pressure, by providing deeper insights into what is happening on the plant floor and how assets are being used. Advanced analytics have the ability to provide a more detailed, accurate and up-to-date picture of plant operations, giving companies a fighting chance of emerging from the crisis with operations that are safer, compliant and more resilient.

Documentation is crucial to reducing risk. Audits are a key piece of that documentation, helping protect employee health while improving legal liability protection in the event of future lawsuits. Mobile Covid-19 audit software makes the process simpler by allowing team members to complete checklists on a mobile device, documenting verification activities and providing real-time information on hidden problems. This last piece is critical from a liability perspective, as companies will have little defence if it can be shown that the company ignored safety issues.

Auditing software will not only provide an overview of the plant floor as a whole, looking at how operations are being conducted, but it will also indicate employees’ safety. For manufacturers to continue to provide peace of mind to their staff members who are, perhaps nervously, returning to work, plant floor managers need to have sight across the measures they have put in place. Ensuring that the correct levels and amounts of PPE are available to staff, the number of employees working in specific areas and even hand sanitiser bottles are regularly refilled are all important components required to give employees the reassurance they need.

Although we’re likely to see the impact of Covid-19 across the world for months, perhaps years, to come, the UK is beginning to get itself back on its feet and operational once more. Like when running a marathon, the preparation and recovery is just as important as the race itself. If manufacturers are going to be able to refrain from reputational damage and sustain positive relationships with both their employees and customers’, they have to avoid Covid-complacency.

Nobody can predict what litigation will arise in the future, making audits essential to documenting and defending a company’s actions. Verifying that enhanced sanitation and distancing procedures are followed is also part of taking care of the workforce, enabling plant managers to better control fear and manage health while protecting the business itself.

The organisations that do take the fight head on and have visibility across their plant floor are much less likely to face the risks of downtime and legal liability costs, as well as ensuring they’re able to continue to thrive post-pandemic. 

Eric Stoop is CEO of Ease Inc.

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