If you are one of the many manufacturers still operating during the COVID-19 pandemic, you face one overriding challenge: how do you keep your manufacturing floor safe?

With global supply chains in chaos, and essential medical supplies and food products in high demand, manufacturers around the country have been called to arms.

Unilever has ramped up food production to meet demand, distilleries have switched from gin and whisky to hand sanitiser, and Adelaide food packaging company Detmold is pivoting its business to produce millions of respirator and surgical masks.

But it’s not as simple as ramping up production. Manufacturers also need to consider how they can protect workers and prevent the spread of coronavirus in the workplace. After all, the nature of manufacturing work means many employees cannot work from home and often cannot avoid interacting with others in the plant.

As a result, employers face a critical challenge to implement stringent health and safety protocols that go further than any OHS measures we’ve ever seen.

Follow these steps to keep to your manufacturing floor safe during the COVID-19 pandemic:

1. Ensure physical distancing

The term “social distancing” is in our common vocabulary, and it’s essential on the factory floor. As a rule, employees should keep a distance of at least 1.5 metres from each other.

Your challenge is to implement a social distancing protocol on the factory floor.

For high manual or repetitive work in a production line, social distancing can be challenging. If your existing labour planning and set-up does not comply with the 1.5 metre rule, you need to re-think your factory, layout and flow in order to minimise worker contact and movement, while still making sure your production targets are met.

Here are some options:

Line balancing

Line balancing is a production labour optimization concept. For COVID-19, you need to ask the following questions:

1.     Can we combine any activities?

2.     Can we eliminate any non-essential tasks?

3.     Can activities be broken down and redistributed as smaller tasks?

Bringing this data together helps you rethink the number of people, the tasks they perform, and where they perform them. You should be able to lower the number of workers, or combine roles and create cells of workers, which will help with social distancing.

Slow down your line speed

Slowing down production is one way to manage your operations with fewer workers. This may not be an option if you’re struggling to keep pace with demand, but it will help employees maintain safe working distances.

Make simple layout alterations

Stretching out your line and using longer belts will help you keep workers at a safe distance while also keeping the lines running productively.

Stagger your workforce

One of the easiest ways to ensure social distancing is to stagger your critical workforce. This not only limits contact between employees but also ensures your whole workforce doesn’t go down at the same time.

For example, you could split your workforce into teams and ensure these teams make no contact. The teams only work on alternate days or weeks, and never crossover. You can then go a step further by staggering team members’ shifts throughout the day.

2. Encourage stricter personal hygiene

It’s important that your employees practice good hygiene in the workplace, and at home.

Do what you can to reinforce these practices in the workplace:

  • Encourage workers to frequently wash their hands for at least 20 seconds with soap or using an alcohol-based hand sanitiser​. Provide access to hand hygiene stations in entry and exit points where possible and put up posters to demonstrate good hand washing.
  • Limit contact between workers, such as shaking hands.  
  • Cover mouths with a clean tissue or their elbow when coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your face.

3. Educate employees

How do you ensure employees don’t come to work if they are sick? Make sure they know how to spot COVID-19 symptoms (fever, cough, sore throat, and shortness of breath).

Use signs and posters to remind workers of the risks of COVID-19 and how they can stop its spread. Safe Work Australia provides a free business resource kit.

You should also nominate responsible team members to make sure all workers are following the rules. Amazon is even using machine learning-powered software to monitor footage from cameras in and around buildings to ensure that employees are maintaining the safe distances from one another during shifts.

4. Intensify cleaning protocols

You will already have regular, scheduled cleaning of the factory. But now is the time to intensify your cleaning schedule to ensure the factory floor is cleaned and sanitized several times a day.

This includes frequently touched surfaces and areas, such as handrails, doors and equipment, as well as workplace amenities such as kitchens, lunch rooms, common areas, toilets, vending machines, and more.

Provide employees on the factory floor with a spray bottle of sanitiser and train them to clean down plant, equipment and surfaces before and after every shift, and immediately after use.

In reality, employees should arrive at work, wash hands, punch in, wash hands, and use alcohol spray to wipe down workstation areas at the beginning and end of each shift – even if someone has just done it.

For the latest cleaning principles, visit the Australian Government Department of Health website.

5. Manage break times

To prevent people socialising, stagger lunches and breaks to ensure there’s enough room for social distancing in the common areas. This might mean that no more than five employees take a break at a time.

For example, look at where people take their breaks – can you spread the tables further apart? Can people take breaks in different rooms?

6. Decrease high-touch areas

Take simple steps to limit high-touch areas. For example, you can leave doors open where possible to prevent frequent touching of handles, limit the number of people who use a piece of equipment, and more.

7. Build compliance around COVID-19 prevention

Implement safety and compliance processes around COVID-19 prevention, just as you would for any other compliance issue.

Build checksheets and workflows to ensure the shop floor is complying with COVID-19 prevention measures, making it easy for people to understand the actions and tasks involved, and for managers to oversee.

8. Act fast

The coronavirus pandemic is evolving on a daily, even hourly, basis, which means it’s essential to understand any implications for your workplace and employees, and act quickly.

For the latest reliable information on COVID-19, follow the Australian Government Department of Health status updates.

9. Keep your staff in the loop

These are testing times for everyone, so do your best to support them with regular and honest updates.

Follow the golden rule of crisis communications: communicate often, communicate concisely (stick to the key messages), and tell them where to find more information.  

The Bottom Line

The reality is there can be a vast amount of time and money involved in changing production lines and redesigning factory floors, but if you are going to keep operating, you need to make your manufacturing operations as safe as possible for your employees.

The most effective actions you can take is to educate your workforce and ensure they understand the importance of following new, stricter rules on cleaning, hygiene and personal interaction.