Shop Talk: Communication is key to employee safety during coronavirus

EmbedTek employees assemble face shields. The company donated 10,000 face shields to area hospitals in mid-April.
EmbedTek employees assemble face shields. The company donated 10,000 face shields to area hospitals in mid-April.

When employees at Winco Stamping in Menomonee Falls go to work, they contribute to efforts to combat the coronavirus. The company is currently producing 150,000 aluminum pieces per week for facemasks and makes parts for hospital beds and ventilators.

Doing essential work, of course, comes with the challenge of keeping employees safe. As Wisconsin moves toward reopening its economy, the safety measures many companies put in place will also become important for other businesses restarting their operations.

Practices recommended by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce include regular temperature checks for employees, health screening before employees return to work, continuing remote work until at least June 1, reviewing workflow to remove instances of employees being within 6 feet of each other, wearing face coverings, staggered shifts, marking and regularly cleaning frequently touched areas and continuing to minimize travel.

While there are specific policies and procedures for companies to implement, leaders at several area manufacturers say communication is among the most important tools in keeping employees healthy.

“It’s harder than ever…because you can’t all be in the same place,” said Scott Wendelburg, president and chief executive officer of Winco.

Mike Dover, president of Milwaukee-based R&B Wagner Inc., said his initial instinct was to hold off on communicating until he knew all the details.

“We may have withheld a little bit on sending out an email to the entire company,” Dover said. “We started to realize not doing that was actually worse.”

Communicating early and often was an important part of Waukesha-based EmbedTek’s response to the pandemic, said CEO Dan Aicher, even if that meant sharing news about orders being canceled or delayed.

“Some of the updates were rather dire, but what I’ve always believed is that, in a vacuum, especially when things are not good, the truth is generally less than where people’s imaginations will take them,” Aicher said.

Communication alone doesn’t limit the spread of the coronavirus and all three companies had to make changes to keep employees healthy.

The most obvious action was to have employees work from home if possible, and each firm also made changes to its break areas, including removing chairs. EmbedTek repurposed conference rooms to give employees additional space.

All three companies put an increased emphasis on constant cleaning of facilities, including wiping down frequently touched areas and cleaning rest areas immediately after breaks.

“We’re really making sure they saw a visual representation of their concerns (being addressed),” Dover said.

At Winco, employees were asked to wear face masks and gloves and Wendelburg said it was important that the request apply to leadership.

“If you’re going to ask them to wear face masks and gloves, then you better be doing it too,” he said.

Aicher said EmbedTek asked employees to wear masks early on and then in mid-April encouraged employees to check their own temperature before work. In part, the idea is to ask employees to start adopting practices that may become a requirement before long.

“When we employ those things, it’s not a shock,” he said.

EmbedTek uses a cellular manufacturing approach to production and normally would shift employees throughout its facility. During the coronavirus outbreak, the company has instead divided employees into four teams and the groups stay together working on the same product. Start times are staggered and each team has its own area to take breaks.

Aicher also acknowledged the likelihood that an employee will contract COVID-19.

“We can employ the best practices we can, (but) they have lives outside of here and that will happen,” he said. “When that does happen, the folks that work in the immediate proximity of them, even with good social distancing and separation, that group will be sent home and be isolated for 14 days, so in separating the groups it limits that to that team.”

EmbedTek makes products for medical and military markets and Aicher said one of the guiding principles in developing the company’s plan was to not be the link that breaks in the supply chain. The other was to ensure employees were both physically and psychologically safe.

“It was important for (employees) to understand OK, we have a plan … this is what we’re doing, this is why we’re doing them,” he said.

Tips for coronavirus communication:

  1. Default to sharing more information, not less
  2. Encourage employees to adopt practices that might become requirements
  3. Pay attention to mental health along with physical safety

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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