2017 hurricanes show fragility of supply chains

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Disasters, both natural and human-made, have a way of showing the fragility of supply chains. The latest examples came courtesy of Hurricane Maria.

Last week, we reported on a serious shortage of IV bags as medical device manufacturers struggle to return to normal production in Puerto Rico more than three months after Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory.

About 45 percent of electricity customers still don't have power on the island, where 30 percent of the gross domestic product comes from medical and pharmaceutical products like IV bags, sophisticated cancer drugs, glucose monitors and cardiac pacemakers.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it has been working closely with industry and local and federal officials to address the shortage for IV saline bags and other products.

Meanwhile, some hospitals are reporting that they are facing critically low supplies. And to conserve the scare number of available bags, nurses are diluting drugs manually with a process known as an "IV push," and doctors are looking for oral alternatives for drugs.

The IV bag crisis comes on the heels of another significant shortage of plastic products caused, in part, by Hurricane Maria: plastic tarps and sheeting, which are used for emergency roof repairs.

The Associated Press reported in November that suppliers of tarps were still scrambling to fill orders after a Florida company was stripped of two Federal Emergency Management Agency contracts valued at $30 million.

Another tarp supplier told Plastics News that product was in short supply because stockpiles were exhausted by Hurricane Harvey. When Maria hit the Caribbean just weeks later, there initially weren't enough to go around.

No doubt there are many more untold stories of supply chain disruptions that were the result of the hurricanes. After all, a significant chunk of the North American polyethylene capacity was offline. We know some processors were scrambling for resin.

So it's likely that there are many more stories to be told about plastic product shortages this year because production was disrupted as a result of the flooding and storms.

There's an element of "when will we learn?" to these stories. Remember how an explosion at a nylon 12 feedstock plant in 2012 had automotive and medical processors worried about resin shortages?

Or 2011, when an earthquake and tsunami disrupted the Japanese automotive supply chains?

Disasters are going to happen, unfortunately, and when they do, they're going to impact supplies of some plastic products or resins. It's impossible to predict when or where. But it's the responsibility for every company in the supply chains for critically important products — like IV bags — to know where they are vulnerable and to have a plan in place to minimize the impact of the disaster.

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