The following is a guest post from Beth Mielke, a plant manager who has worked 25 years in food manufacturing.
If someone asked me what it was like to work in a COVID environment when everything started a few months ago, I would have said, "It’s not much different." But after months of steady changes, I look around astonished at how much things have changed.
My morning starts at 4 a.m. I get up, make coffee and head to my home office. I am much more aware and grateful of having strength to work and play.
On my way out the door, I pick up my face masks. I pack one in my backpack and tie the other one around my neck. I arrive at work and as I walk to the entrance, I pull my face mask up around my nose and enter the screening tent set up just outside the plant. A healthcare provider sits at a table behind a plexiglass barrier. The questions begin: Have I experienced a fever, cough, shortness of breath? Have I had close contact with someone who is being tested for COVID in the last 24 hours? I answer all the questions, the healthcare provider points a temperature gun at my forehead, says, "You’re good," and checks off my name on a page.
In my office, I hang up my jacket, remove the plastic bag with my second clean face mask and place it on my desk. I change into my steel toe shoes, put on my hairnet, bump cap and ear plugs, stick my safety glasses in my pocket, clip my radio to my belt, and the speaker to the collar of my shirt, careful not to clip my face mask strings or my ear plugs that hang around my neck.
If you haven’t worked in a factory and you want to understand what it’s like, put on a hat, a face mask, safety glasses, ear plugs and wear a long lab coat over your clothing. Have your entire family do this for eight hours. This means wearing all this stuff while you walk on the treadmill, FaceTime your family, clean the bathroom, fold laundry, load the dishwasher, play catch with your kid outside, mow the lawn, wash windows, everything! Only take these things off when you are eating or using the bathroom, and then put them back on. This is what our team members must do for 8 to 12 hours a day, 4 to 6 days a week. It gets old. The second week of wearing a mask was better than the first, but not by much.
It's time to head out to the production floor for the first walk around. I put in my ear plugs, don my safety glasses and wash my hands, being mindful to be extra thorough. Then I sanitize my hands once again, put on a lab coat and walk through the hallway toward the control room. I poke my head in to see if the two control room operators are six feet away from each other and wearing their face masks properly. Recently, we added a social barrier: a framework with a plastic bag over it, so they can get closer to each other to use the 13 control screens on the wall and on the table in front of them. If one of these operators gets sick, the chances of the other becoming ill is quite high. They share the same room for 8 to 12 hours a day, use the same keyboards, paperwork, etc.
They give me updates on what is going on and lighten my mood with their daily banter and lighthearted jokes. Their commitment to our plant, their knowledge of the process and willingness to adapt and try new things is PRICELESS. They are more than operators, they are like family to me.
Walking through our processing equipment area, I observe a LOT of work happening. It is a cramped space with millions of pounds moving through it, feeding our entire packaging floor. All the valves, meters, pipes, centrifuges, samples, steam, water, drains, HMI screens, switches, buttons, probes, numbers, speeds, percentages, flow, electricity, pounds, gallons, blenders, pumps, motors, tanks, load cells, junction boxes, safety switches, all working in orchestrated motion to produce Philadelphia Cream Cheese. Each person understanding a piece of the process but not the whole. Each person able to do their part and make the whole puzzle come together.
I remind a contractor to pull his face mask up over his nose using hand signals. I refrain from using words or having any conversation because this area is loud. I can no longer read lips due to the face masks.
Next I enter a quieter area that is being prepped for production. Talking with the operator, I am careful to distance myself by six feet. As I step back, he steps closer. I hold up my arm and back away stating “six foot distance” and he replies “MAN! This is hard getting used to.”
There is an equipment failure on an upper floor. I hike up the six flights of stairs in all my gear. I’m tired and sucking in my mask with every breath. I just want to rip what feels like duct tape off my mouth. Just inhale normally for once.
An added challenge with the face mask — I can’t read people’s faces and they can’t read mine. They can only see my eyes, and it occurred to me I don’t have to make an expression at all. I don’t know if folks are happy, sad, frustrated or upset. Prior to COVID, I could walk the plant floor or see people on the stairway and read their face and know if they were having a good day or bad day. Now, I try to read the way they walk or hold their head, the set of their shoulders, anything. It’s not as easy and I haven’t gotten it right all the time. I like to hear their stories, hear about their families, what they did over the weekend or the fishing trip they took. I don’t ask those questions anymore because they can’t hear me and it’s unnecessary. I must limit communication on the production floor because it forces me to be within six feet of the other person. I feel like I’m being socially suffocated.
It’s late morning, 11:30 a.m. Time to sanitize my office. I walk to the area to get my gloves on, safety glasses, paper towels and cleaner. I spray the office door handles, the light switch, the closet door knobs, the chairs, the table, my desk. Then I saturate a towel with the sanitizer and wipe down my markers, my mouse, keyboard, phone, radio and the outside of my coffee cup. I navigate my keyboard with gloved hands as I read my emails. I wipe down the areas I sprayed with paper towels. Ten minutes later I walk back to the table to return the materials and document on a sheet that I’ve completed my four-hour cleaning. These sheets are distributed throughout the plant daily in every area: offices, lab, warehouse, break rooms, bathrooms, stairwells, entrances, processing and packaging. Everyone takes part in four-hour cleanings. These cleaning events are documented not only on sheets that are collected at the end of every shift, but this information is reviewed and entered into worksheets to understand if areas are being missed.
At 1 p.m., it’s time for the daily COVID call that corporate holds to share information on numbers of cases, close contacts, performance monitoring results, best practices among plants and to hear from senior leaders. It is valuable and reminds us that we are not alone. Today a plant shared how they held their meetings outside using a microphone and speakers to allow for social distancing. Another way to bridge the communication gap, since cramming 30 to 40 people in a conference room is no longer a viable option. I’ll definitely build off this. It’d be so nice to actually have a meeting in person. We’ve communicated via bulletin boards, in monthly newsletters and our TV screens, but it’s hard to tell how effective they are since I can’t see people or answer questions.
Mid-afternoon, the plant controller informs me that a manufacturing plant in town is shutting down due to a spike in positive COVID cases. That plant is having 100% of their workforce tested for COVID over the next three days. I ask her to find out what precautionary measures the company was following. In the meantime, my thoughts gather around the risks. Our town is small, about 16,000 people. The chances of our folks being related to, or coming into contact with employees who work at the other plant is high. I call our safety and HR manager to brainstorm how to react. We decide a letter to all our employees is necessary. We ask that anyone who has come into close contact with anyone working from this other manufacturing plant report themselves and stay home until test results are published. I have no idea how this is going to affect us. Will we be shutting down lines? Will we be shutting down the plant? All things to “wait and see.”
For the next few days as people are scheduled, we are notified of folks calling in due to a family member, roommate or friend being tested. We cover the gaps with overtime, and our plant continues to run on schedule. We review the cases being affected daily in our 10 a.m. plant COVID meeting. We call folks almost daily and ask if they have received word of results. We ask if they are symptomatic. So far, so good. Results are coming back negative with minimal impact to our team.
I remember when the news first came out about the pandemic and schools shut down and flights were canceled. We had a team member flying overseas to Europe. There was a lot of anxiety about him coming back and working in the plant. We followed CDC guidelines and determined the team member would self-quarantine for 14 days. Although the person impacted was a bit upset at first, when thinking of his peers and the potential risk he would put them in, he willingly obliged. I find that this is the case most often. We have a team member who has been with us for over 40 years. She is a very thoughtful and considerate person. She often puts her co-workers’ needs above her own. She will do the dirty, tough job so another teammate can do what they are good at. What would we do if it impacted her? We must always put employee safety first. We must protect them as much as we can, using the resources we have.
Yes, it seems we may go to extremes with the number of reminders to social distancing inside and outside work. It may seem extreme having to stand at a red X while waiting a moment to clock out. It may seem extreme having a plastic barrier between operators standing four feet apart. We know what loss it can prevent. We are reminded of the importance when we read the news and see the death toll. We are reminded in the daily corporate-led COVID meeting to take the proactive approach as much as possible because being reactive can have life-long impacts. Loss of a family member is devastating.
Although these family members may not share the same blood, we are bound by purpose and our commitment to each other to make a positive difference in our workplace with our thoughts, words and actions. We need each other. One person cannot bear the weight that COVID brings with the added responsibilities, decisions, communication and tasks. But, each person, making a decision to walk to work vs. carpooling, wearing their mask although hot and uncomfortable, getting to work five minutes sooner to go through the health screening line, filling sanitizing bottles each day, spacing themselves out six feet apart at breaks. All these things, however small, add up.
I am so grateful and thankful for each person who wakes up each day and willingly comes to work, taking on the added tasks that COVID brings and still working their magic, running production, making product safely and correctly the first time. At the times I am most frustrated because of the circumstances we are in, I step back and remind myself that I am not alone. There are 200+ teammates I am working with, enduring these challenges, staying focused, sharing pleasantries with me in the hall and finding joy through it all. What more could I ask for?