Machinists and programmers do essential work, so how can they perform their jobs safely, during and after Covid-19? For manufacturing businesses, the "New Normal" that settles into place after a crisis is an opportunity. For thousands of small businesses, including machine shops, shutting down to contain the spread of the coronavirus and reopening again represents a chance to invest in new employee health and workplace safety programs.
Here are a series of tactics that already are being adopted successfully, keeping workers safe and maintaining machine shop productivity:
1. Change the workplace culture. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are two of the best primary sources for emerging industry best practices. For manufacturing, OSHA recommends making the following changes to your machine shop’s culture:
• Require sick employees to stay home.
• Implement paid sick leave to ensure workers can afford to self-isolate.
• Create flexible work hours and stagger shift times whenever possible.
Also, manufacturers must communicate openly and regularly as reopening continues, and poll their workers on the safety and health practices they find most supportive.
2. Perform employee pre-shift screening. Pre-shift screening may seem a strange step, but it will be an important workplace policy for manufacturing operations. For example, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), it is lawful for employers to take workers’ temperatures as they report for their shifts.
Lawful and appropriate employee-screening measures also include basic health questionnaires. These should include determining whether a worker has experienced Covid-19 symptoms, whether he or she has traveled recently, and whether he has been in close quarters with somebody who has been ill.
Some employers are adopting smartphone apps and touchless kiosks to help these processes go more smoothly.
3. Rearrange for social distancing. It could take time in some machine shops to identify the best new set-up for each workstation. Given the emphasis that some health officials place on individuals maintaining 6-foot distances, this work may be essential to establishing a "new normal" in the workplace.
Where creating social distance is a greater challenge, the CDC recommends limiting the duration of activities performed in close quarters. Some machine shops are electing to install plexiglass and other types of barriers to establish more separation between individuals workers — as well as some peace of mind.
Machine shops and other manufacturers must place strict limits on the number of visitors granted access to the facility.
Additionally, any non-essential workers from the shop floor or front or back offices should be provided with alternative work or be allowed to work from home for the foreseeable future.
Many employers already have implemented work-from-home (WFH) workflows and technologies, and when surveyed an apparent majority of employees indicate their desire to make WFH the new normal.
For machine shops, there’s an opportunity to explore more geographically diverse teams across disciplines like digital design and product testing. The physical manufacturing and fabrication processes may always need a guiding hand, but much of the support work, as the world is now freshly aware, can be done from nearly anywhere.
5. Step-up cleaning procedures. Every manufacturer must raise its standards concerning workplace cleanliness. The first step is to use chemicals and cleaning products recommended by health experts. The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “List N” contains the name, active ingredients and recommended usage for disinfectants known to kill SARS-CoV-2.
With the correct products selected, it’s a matter of ramping up staffing and training to ensure every high-touch and high-traffic area gets cleaned at a more regular interval. Some machine shops may need to revisit the very structure of these spaces.
Not every design feature or material choice is equally conducive to quick or frequent cleanings. Materials like polished concrete or resinous floors stand up incredibly well to intensive, continuous cleaning regimens. Making life easier for cleaning crews in one area, including flooring, allows heightened attention to other areas, like bathrooms and critical equipment.
6. Revisit traffic flow and occupancy. Busy machine shops may struggle with congestion at entrances, time clocks, bathrooms, storage areas, and elsewhere. Traffic flow and occupancy are important variables to revisit and adjust as businesses reopen. Here are some things to remember:
• Add traffic markings on the floor in congested areas to enforce a one-way flow.
• Place limits on the number of occupants in restrooms and break rooms.
• Restrict employee interactions and movement throughout the facility.
It’s also recommended that machine shops allow at least one hour of “rest time” between shifts. This period provides time for cleaning crews to perform their duties and for any airborne particles to settle again.
7. Provide PPE and cleaning supplies. Machine shops must provide their workforce with all the recommended personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies they may need throughout a shift or workday. Shops have an advantage over some other types of employers in that the recommended PPE may double as pandemic-ready protective gear.
Machinists already wear ANSI-rated eye protection and face coverings when using powered equipment or hand tools. Health experts are clear about the pandemic-fighting protection offered by masks and eye shields.
Employees must receive additional training on regularly cleaning their workspaces and high-touch surfaces before and after use. And, managers must follow this training by maintaining inventories of all “pandemic essentials,” such as:
• Hand sanitizer (60% alcohol)
• Disinfecting wipes
• Face masks
And, machine shops are encouraged to install washable covers on any public keyboards or keypads, to make the cleaning process easier to repeat throughout the day.
Other ways to stay safe. It’s worth noting the significant uptick in sales of robotic units as the Covid-19 pandemic has unfolded. Employers everywhere are adopting robots and automated material handling equipment to help maintain productivity while understaffed.
Using robotics for facility cleaning and material handling is advisable because robots can automatically clean lower-priority areas like floors, while human cleaning crews focus on high-touch and high-risk surfaces, including common areas. Automating material handling helps to ensure work can continue even with furloughed personnel, and it reduces cross-traffic too — which support social distancing protocols.
All employers have their work cut out for them. On the positive side of this "new normal," machine shops and other manufacturers already have the resources and applications they will need to recommence their work safely.
Megan Nichols is a STEM writer and blogger who writes on a wide range of scientific topics at schooledbyscience.com. Her recent work has included Quick Tips for Machining Hard Materials, 9 Popular Choices for EMI Shielding and Save Money by Fixing and Preventing Compressor Leaks. Follow Megan on Twitter @nicholsrmegan.