It was 2 a.m. Oct. 6 and William Herdrich, president of closure manufacturer Poly-Seal Corp. in Baltimore, couldn't sleep. A virus — possibly Legionnaires' disease — had killed one employee in his plant. Several others seemed to have it.
But no one knew for sure, and Herdrich had just spent all evening meeting with health officials, who told him he did not need to shut down the injection molding plant.
``I got home and I said, `I can't live with this,''' Herdrich said. ``I called Robert [Weilminster, Poly-Seal's chief financial officer] at 2 o'clock in the morning and said, `We've got to shut it down.'''
So managers gathered a few hours before dawn in the nondescript factory in a Baltimore industrial park and made plans to close the half of the plant where employees were ill. Herdrich said he needed to be sure no one was at risk, but all the while, he said, he was plagued with a nagging doubt.
``I had real qualms — is this going to ruin our month or year?'' said Herdrich, a West Point graduate who took over Poly-Seal in 1995. ``Am I killing the company because of my own ethics? Those were pretty tough decisions.''
But they're not necessarily unusual ones when a crisis strikes. Decisions get made by people who are tired, emotionally drained or acting on incomplete information.
Plastics processing facilities have had their share of crises, from natural disasters like tornadoes and floods to man-made incidents like plant shootings or defective products that cause injuries or deaths.
Those who have been through these nightmares say having a disaster plan is crucial. Experts say many firms have not done enough planning for trouble, or bothered to practice those plans.
``Most small businesses don't have plans and don't have a clue what is involved until it is too late,'' said Philip Jan Rothstein, president of crisis management firm Rothstein Associates in Brookfield, Conn. ``It does not take a lot to have a simple plan.''
``Any time you experience a crisis like this, you learn from it,'' said Neil McLeod, vice president of human resources for monofilament extruder Glassmaster Co. in Lexington, S.C. A tornado destroyed a warehouse and damaged one manufacturing plant at its campus in August 1994.
``Have some sort of plan, and make sure your supervisors and employees know of the plan,'' he said.
Sometimes, lessons are learned the hard way.
Innovative Molding Inc. in Sebastopol, Calif., got about 40 inches of water in the plant from a flash flood one day in January 1995. The situation was so bad, employees canoed through the plant videotaping damage.
But they weren't videotaping for insurance. Tough times forced the injection molder to cancel its flood insurance a few years earlier, and they didn't bother to check the policy when profits improved, said operations manager Warren Hunt.
``If exigencies cause you to cut back on policies, have your broker remind you that you are half-naked,'' he said.
Innovative spent at least $250,000 getting back up and running, he said.
Employees pulled together, and five days later, partial operations started again, he said. Besides mud, the equipment was covered in an oily film because oil from some of the hydraulic machines leaked out and coated the machines when the water drained away, Hunt said.
Cleaning up the warehouse took six months. Workers had stacked resin boxes 18 feet high when they got warnings of the flood. It took only 6 inches of water to soak the base of the bottom box in many stacks and cause entire stacks to collapse, he said.
The firm has since built flood doors at the plant and made other improvements to protect against flooding, he said.
Another area often overlooked is the media, said Jeff Braun, general manager of crisis communications firm Ammerman Experience in Stafford, Texas. Poly-Seal, for example, was deluged by media attention until it brought in a local media consultant.
Initially, Poly-Seal's chief financial officer was the media contact. But he was quickly overwhelmed, Herdrich said. So Poly-Seal's consultant orchestrated news conferences, fed information to TV stations and worked out a pool arrangement for cameras, giving the media what it needed and letting the firm's CFO get back to plant recovery, he said.
Crisis management experts say companies need to speak to the public and the press immediately, whether it's to get out a point of view or explain how the firm is helping injured employees.
``Usually what happens is there is a hesitation to talk until the company feels they have a handle on what is happening,'' said Braun, a former TV journalist. ``The problem is that other people then define that company's response to a problem.''
Weilminster said Poly-Seal made two decisions that proved crucial:
It sought help in areas where it lacked expertise: media relations and handling the health threat. The firm brought Johns Hopkins University experts to the plant the same day it became aware the employee died, when it noticed other employees had similar symptoms. At the time, Poly-Seal thought it was dealing with pneumonia.
It worked hard to keep control of the situation as more government agencies started to get drawn in.
``Don't feel you have to wait for a government agency to direct the process,'' Herdrich said. ``You can question. We worked very closely with them, but I think that's why we were successful.''
A small example: The company, its health experts and state officials were meeting at 9 p.m. to talk about how to disinfect the molds. The standard treatment of using chlorine would ruin the molds, and the health officials said they'd have to wait until the next day to ask experts at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. But Herdrich insisted they get the name of the expert and call directory assistance to get his home number. They did, and talked with him that night, getting a jump on their treatment.
Poly-Seal also pushed its JHU health expert to share an initial assessment that the employee died of Legionnaires' disease. At first, the official was reluctant because it was a preliminary finding, Herdrich said. Later tests confirmed the cause.
When Poly-Seal first decided to shut down the plant, the firm assigned managers to fan out and tell all employees, customers and the public as quickly as possible. But Herdrich said he did not give himself any specific tasks.
``The president of the company cannot get involved with the press or other people, because you've got to be free to go around and make decisions and talk to people freely,'' he said.
Herdrich said he was able to walk the plant floor and talk to almost all of Poly-Seal's employees.
``The overall sense was they handled it pretty good, very proactive,'' Steve Lightener, president of the United Steelworkers of America Local 6967, which represents the plants' workers. ``They kept the union involved.''
Once the immediate crisis was resolved, Poly-Seal set about figuring out what went wrong.
That was complicated by the first batch of tests of the plant's water, which did not find any legionellosis. More tests were done at a better lab and came up positive. That's because the first batch was tested like potable water in hospitals, rather than water that has been through a manufacturing process, Herdrich said.
But that still left the firm wondering how workers got exposed.
Legionellosis is a surprisingly common bacteria found in moderate-temperature water. Exposure can result in symptoms ranging from mild respiratory illness to severe pneumonia, particularly for smokers or those with other illnesses. It must be breathed in, and does not appear to spread from person to person contact.
Since all the cooling towers came back positive for legionellosis, Herdrich figured that was the path of exposure. All of the employees who got sick were smokers, Weilminster said, and some night-shift workers used to gather near the towers to smoke, rather than using a company-provided smoking area.
The bacteria probably was in the water system because Poly-Seal switched water treatment companies that summer, Herdrich said. The new treatment firm was alternating a treatment that was effective for legionellosis with one that wasn't, he added.
``I think every company should look, just based on our experience, to make sure their water treatment company is treating for legionella effectively,'' he said.
Any disaster planning needs to assume that what can go wrong, will go wrong, Rothstein said.
In 1996, custom thermoformer Harva Co. Inc. had about 90 minutes warning of a flood resulting from a sudden January thaw. The Schoharie, N.Y., firm moved some of its products to a new part of its plant that engineers said was safe.
That proved to be overly optimistic. The main plant got 26 inches of water in about six hours, and the supposedly flood-proof area got 6, said President Susan McGiver.
Because the community was termed a disaster area, Harva got low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration, which allowed it to rebuild better than before, including adding second-floor offices, partially to protect records from floods.
Harva employees came together to clean up after flooding subsided, including some who had to talk their way past police lines to get in and help, she said.
``Living through a certain number of high-water situations where they give flood warnings, you get cocky,'' she said. ``I never imagined it could get as bad as it did.''