Many materials firms met the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it's hard to top the efforts of workers at two polypropylene resin plants operated by Braskem Americas.
In late March, workers agreed to work 28-day shifts at plants in Marcus Hook, Pa., and Neal, W.Va., to limit the spread of COVID-19 and to keep the plants running. Both plants make PP that's used in fabric for N95 masks, hospital gowns and hoods, sanitary wipes and other medical applications needed during the pandemic.
The Marcus Hook shift involved 46 workers, and the Neal team had 44. The 28-day shift in Neal ended April 29, while the epic shift in Marcus Hook ended earlier that month.
Plastics News recently checked in via email with Bob McGonigal, Joe Boyce and Nick Bocook — three Braskem employees who worked the 28-day shifts. McGonigal and Boyce both are operations shift supervisors in Marcus Hook. McGonigal has worked there for 28 years, while Boyce is in his 27th year. Bocook is a production superintendent who's been at the Neal plant for five years.
Q: What was your first reaction when the 28-day shift was proposed?
McGonigal: I realized how serious the pandemic was and how important it was for Braskem to keep the plant running. I was hoping we'd have enough volunteers to staff the plant and knew it was going to take a lot of planning in a very short period of time to get this done.
Bocook: Wow, this is a pretty big deal. That we as a company were really committing to maintaining health of the plant and the personnel.
Boyce: My first reaction was that COVID must be a pretty serious matter. I was wondering how we could complete the 28-day live-in, what resources would we need. I was interested in participating but had to work through a thought process of whether I was better serving my family and community or could this have a negative impact on my family if I was not home for the 28 days; this was a very uncertain time for our nation. There were concerns of food supply and other basic staples.
Q: What made you decide to be part of it?
Boyce: I had wanted to participate and had my family's full support from the initial talk of the live-in. After very meaningful discussion with my family and the development of plans for them based on varying scenarios, we had tremendous support from family and friends that enabled me to be comfortable with committing to the live-in. We all wanted to support our clients' needs and ensure that they were supplied with the materials they needed to sustain operations, many of which were supplying PPE to the front lines of the COVID battle.
Bocook: I decided to be part of it to help our team and to protect those who were more vulnerable. Basically to take care of our co-workers and our families.
McGonigal: Knowing that there was a shortage of PPE, I just wanted to help produce the products needed for the front-line workers so they could do their job safely.
Q: What was the most difficult thing about the shift?
McGonigal: Working 28 straight 12-hour nights took some getting used to, but the time actually went by quickly once the shift started.
Bocook: The most difficult part of the shift was being away from my family and the concerns of not being able to be with them in an extreme circumstance.
Boyce: Although we faced a few hurdles and learning curves early on with the live-in, things went pretty well and we had excellent support from those working off-site. I would say the most difficult thing was being away from my family, especially during such a trying time for our nation. There were difficult times for many, be it missing a birthday with family, the birth of a grandchild or some other personal aspect of their life that they were missing, but there was great support among the team members. We sang happy birthday to some, we congratulated on life events.
Q: Were some parts of the shift different than what you had expected?
Boyce: As far as our actual work time and shifts, things were relatively normal. We did have to adapt to handling any situations requiring outside resources, but this was a process that we lined out pretty quickly. We had outstanding teamwork from the live-in team. We had to maintain the office building as our living quarters. Some of the tasks included mopping floors, cleaning bathrooms, setting up and cleaning up for three meals a day, and this went extremely well. It was probably the cleanest the building ever was, and it has always been well maintained. It was rewarding to see the ownership and teamwork.
Although I had no expectations, the evening meal was also an interesting and joyful event. The camaraderie and mood in the room was very enjoyable.
Bocook: I think we were pretty well prepared for it. The biggest surprise to me was how quickly the event went by.
McGonigal: Nothing was different while working the shift, but getting used to the off-shift hours took some time to get adjusted to. Fortunately, the plan that was put in place as far as the sleeping arrangements, food, showers, internet access and the gym made the days go by quickly.
Q: How do you feel about the shift now?
McGonigal: Currently working seven on, seven off. It has its pros and cons. I'm looking forward to eventually getting back to our regular shift.
Bocook: I am proud to have been a part of the team. Glad that we could do our part to minimize the disruption caused by the pandemic, but more importantly we were able to keep our team and their families safe during uncertain times.
Boyce: The seven-day shift we are currently following also has taken some time to get used to. The schedule has its pros and cons, and it impacts each team member differently. I must say, though, after seven days of awakening at 2:30 a.m., it's nice to sleep in on the eighth day.