On the Safety of Workers During Corona – Part 1

The world is suffering from a pandemic. SARS-CoV-2, better known as the coronavirus, is killing people all over the world and damaging the economy. One major topic (among many) is how to keep workers safe during the pandemic. Hence, I would like to provide my thoughts on this topic.

Please note, this is not a guideline to solve all your virus-related manufacturing problems. The current situation is causing headaches for most manufacturing companies, and these headaches are hard to avoid. Second, I am an engineer and not a virologist. Hence, all virus-related information is only to the best of my knowledge. But, come to think of it, so is my engineering knowledge too. Use this information at your own risk. The recommendations here are based on the common recommendations to avoid infection, with a view on how they can be applied on the shop floor. This is the first out of two posts on worker safety during the pandemic, followed by a post of the influence of corona on logistics.


The easy part …

First, do the obvious and do not let people in the plant if they don’t have to be there. Visitor groups and tours should be canceled to reduce the risk for your workforce. You may also consider special attention to high-risk workers (i.e., those over sixty years of age and those with diabetes, lung or heart problems or similar risk factors – if you know about them).

Avoiding infections at work is usually easier for office workers. Most times they can work from home, staying in touch through the phone, email, and the now-common video meetings. Sometimes, however, the office worker needs to work from the office. For example, if the worker handles sensitive data that must not leave the company premises. Or if, because of an outdated legal system, they still need to sign documents by hand (this is the reason most Japanese salarymen still have to go to work almost every day). But even in these cases, you usually can easily increase the distance between the employees.

Manufacturing workers rarely have these options. They have to be where the machines are, and the machines are often difficult to move. Hence, manufacturing workers are often still working closely together, increasing the risk of infection. Regarding this risk, there is no guaranteed safety. The measures below only reduce the risk, but they cannot eliminate it entirely. A combination of multiple, or ideally all, measures are better than doing just one.


One way of reducing the risk of infection is testing. There are different types of test. An antibody test checks if you have had the virus in the past. More interesting, however, is an antigen test or molecular test, which checks if you have the virus now. However, these tests are currently still in somewhat limited supply, expensive, and may take a few days to analyze. Even then, there is still a small error rate, and the test may fail to detect an infection (false negative) or claim an infection where there is none (false positive). Testing research may give us cheaper and more reliable tests in the future. Yet, at the moment, these are the best tests we have.

An alternative is measuring temperatures. This can be done quickly and cheaply, but the reliability is not good at all. There will be plenty of false positives and false negatives with a quick temperature check. Besides, the virus can be spread before there are any symptoms. Still, some companies do the temperature check, as it may reduce the risk slightly, or at least makes it look like they are doing something.

Many countries have paid sick leave, and workers are not penalized if they are sick. If your country does not have this (and yes, I am looking at you, USA!), workers may go to work even if they have symptoms because they need the money to survive. In effect, by not having paid sick leave you penalize your workers for protecting others by staying home.


Elderly Worker
All Alone …

Another approach is to keep distance. This is known as social distancing, although at work it would be more like professional distancing :). Unfortunately, there is no vote out there yet as for how much distance we need. Some countries require 2 meters, some 6 feet (1.8 meter), some 1.5 meters. There is an often-cited paper with the claim that the risk halves for every meter further away. However, these citations miss that this is not a result of the research, but an assumption made for the model. Although, in general, more distance seems to be better. Additionally, there seems to be a much lower risk of infection outside, whereas the small droplets in the air can distribute throughout a room easily, regardless of the distance. Unfortunately, most manufacturing happens indoors.

Many factories try to increase the distance between workers. Depending on the country, this may be between 1.5 and 2 meters, although this also seems to be a compromise between reducing the risk and still trying to fit enough people into the factory to run it.

In some manufacturing locations, the processes are far enough apart to allow this required distance. The challenge is here to ensure your workers stay apart when moving around in the plant. Visual management can help here to make the distance more … well … visual. You probably have seen similar lines on the ground in your supermarket. Some plants also made the walking paths into one-way streets so workers can stay apart easier.

Tractor Assembly
Close together …

Some processes, however, have workers in close proximity. If it is a two- (or more) person operation, you may be able to reduce it to one person with automation … assuming the robot arrives before a vaccine becomes available and the crisis ends. For assembly lines or manufacturing cells, it is often possible to reduce staffing. Instead of ten people in an assembly line, you have only five, and each person also handles the work of the no-longer-present person next to them. This can significantly increase the distance, but it also reduces your output by half. It is effectively a flexible manpower line with reduced staffing. I know the reduced output is a bummer, but unless you can move your processes around and have the space, you may have to do this to protect your workers. Reducing the number of workers reduces the output. Although, many industries like automotive can happily do that, since sales are reduced drastically due to corona anyway.

Distancing is more difficult in the cafeteria, especially since you can’t wear a mask while eating. Consider switching from buffet-style to served or pre-packaged meals, and serve drinks in the bottle.

Going Viral...
Going Viral…

In many countries, meat-processing plants were hit especially hard by the virus. Distancing in a meat-processing plant would seem similar to distancing in an assembly line. After all, a meat-processing plant is nothing but a disassembly line for animals. The problem here is that many of the workers are often low-paid migrant workers staying in housing assigned by the plant. Often, these living quarters are quite cramped, distancing and hygiene are difficult, and hence a virus can easily infect others. It may also be that the virus survives easier in a cold and wet environment. There are also reports of employers not providing masks or failing at other safety guidelines.

Overall, as an employer you are responsible for the safety of your employees. Please do your part in containing the virus. I will continue this topic in my next post, including the in my opinion two most important aspects: hand hygiene and masks. Now, go out, save the health of your people, and Organize your Industry!

2 thoughts on “On the Safety of Workers During Corona – Part 1”

  1. I spent my career working in and with major hazard industries. Use of distancing, shielding, PPE and many other risk controls such as defence in depth are normal. These industries have learnt to apply risk management in a very supplicated way by the application of management tools and creative intelligence generally within a highly regulated environment. Probably the most important thing is to take an integrated approach to management and employ a fully integrated system. Amongst other things it involves designing and implementing structures and processes where everything is addressed with respect to its impact on the whole. Any structure or process has multiple potential impacts (positive and negative and these need to be balanced so that the stakeholders are equitably satisfied making the best use of resources (the foundation principle of Integrated Management).

Leave a Comment

Cookie Consent with Real Cookie Banner