The COVID-19 pandemic impacted businesses quickly and manufacturers were forced to respond rapidly to protect the health and safety of their employees. Nystrom was no exception.
Before the governor of Nystrom’s home state of Minnesota declared Stay at Home measures, Nystrom’s leadership team was taking steps to slow production and plan for safer manufacturing policies and practices.
Working with Chief Executive Officer Sue Thomas and manufacturing supervisors, Chief Operating Officer Matt Benson led the development of the company’s Safe Manufacturing Strategy. Benson’s goal was to establish an effective, enforceable plan of action to allow safe manufacturing of Nystrom products guided by established methods and guidance from state and federal health agencies. The plan would go beyond writing policies to include mandatory practices to reduce the risk of transmission.
The Safe Manufacturing Strategy, known as the SMS, was developed and phased in carefully by initially bringing back a small, experienced crew to begin shipping orders. Decisions to increase manufacturing were influenced by the Governor of Minnesota expanding the state’s Safe at Home policy and monitoring health agencies and models showing the effectiveness of social distancing to curb the spread of the virus.
Planning and Preparation
Benson used the well-established Hierarchy of Controls approach to build the safety plan. “Rather than relying on workers to reduce their exposure, the best way to control a hazard is to systematically remove it from the workplace,” Benson said. “During the COVID-19 outbreak when it was not possible to eliminate the hazard, our goal was to reduce the risk of spread.” According to Benson, the most effective protection measures are established and mandated and include engineering controls, administrative controls, safe work practices and the use of personal protective equipment.
The team started with engineering controls that would alter operations to promote safety. The controls included closing lunchrooms, moving the physical layout of workstations to ensure a minimum of six feet spacing and eliminating the production of any product that required team lifting and violation of the six-foot distancing policy. Several improvements were made to eliminate workers touching surfaces, including the installation of touchless faucets and soap dispensers, automated check-in that eliminated traditional punch clocks and propping all doors open during working hours.
Administrative controls and safe work practices were established and tested so Benson and his supervisors were confident employees could successfully follow the new requirements. The controls include limiting one worker to interact with any machine or tool equipment and that individual sanitizes those touch surfaces at the beginning and end of each shift. Signs were produced and posted throughout the building and workspaces.
Communication and Execution
When employees were called back to begin regular work shifts, the new safety policies were communicated in advance to prepare workers.
Prior to reporting to work, members of the production team received emails from Benson with a link to view a video. The video featured Benson outlining the safety practices and mandatory conduct that would greet the team when they returned to work.
Early on the morning of the first full production day in April, production employees lined up single file outside of Nystrom’s facilities and walked in one-by-one. They were greeted by Production Manager John Chiodo and Facilities Manager Rick Fanning, who were stationed at the entrance to immediately implement the practices outlined in Benson’s video. Chiodo and Fanning directed employees to wash their hands and pick up their personal protection equipment. Employees continued single file and six feet apart to Production Managers Craig Rudesill and Jim Boden, who monitored check-in and conducted non-contact temperature checks. Team members then reported to their workstations for small group meetings that restated safety rules and instructions to start the workday.
Personal Health & Safety First
The development of the new manufacturing plan was an employee-first endeavor, according to Senior Human Resources Director Susan Aaker, who worked with Benson and his team on the plan. “Our resilience and compassion helped us rise to the challenge,” Aaker recalls. While it was critical to develop new safety protocols to reduce the risk of illness, Aaker formalized standards for employees, including a one-page safety protocol summary that each employee signed prior to starting work.
Any employee who was sick or exposed to sick individuals was to stay home. “We ensured that our leave policies were flexible and consistent with public health guidance and didn’t require a healthcare provider’s note for employees who were sick with acute respiratory illness to validate their illness.”
CEO Thomas endorsed the people-first approach and communicated to all employees that returning to work was voluntary and that no pressure was applied in the event employees didn’t feel comfortable returning to the workplace due to compromised immunity or other health related concerns.
Education, Enforcement and the Future
Benson, Fanning and the production management team are tasked with effective education, auditing, monitoring and enforcement of the plan during the exposure risk period of the COVID-19 pandemic. Benson is confident that the team is up to the task. “Our employees have thanked us for the safeguards. Every day they leave and return to their families with the confidence that we’ve invested in their safety. We’ve developed a plan that can be communicated, executed and monitored,” said Benson.” Thomas adds that beyond measuring the activities, there’s one metric that counts to her. “If we remain healthy, that’s the measurement I’m looking for,” said Thomas.