Shin-Etsu Silicones of America Inc. made two donations of N95 masks to the Akron Fire Department in Ohio, though a later recall gave the silicone materials firm a little scare as to whether it would have enough respiratory protection on hand for its own staff at its Akron facility.
Shane Coon, safety supervisor at the Shin-Etsu operation, said a few months back when word of the novel coronavirus outbreak was beginning to spread, he heard reports that Home Depot was running out of the N95 masks. He then contacted the firm's vendors to see how much supply was available, and he was able to secure some extra stock of the respiratory masks.
When the Akron Fire Department later came by to see if Shin-Etsu could spare any of the masks, Coon first cleared it with management and the company donated about 100 at that time.
Less than 72 hours later, however, 3M issued a recall of the particulate filters — part of a combination filter that covers both particulates and organic vaporized gas — that were essential components of the powered air-purifying respirators in use at the Shin-Etsu facility in Akron.
"So all of a sudden, we needed those masks," said Jason Guseman, general manager of the operations. "Obviously we didn't ask for them back, but we did get burned there for a bit. In the long run, we all felt like we did the right thing."
After the 3M recall, Coon said, the firm had to scramble to try to come up with enough PAPR parts and other respiratory protection for the staff. The PAPR units are the top respiratory technology for workers in the operating portion of the plant, but the N95 masks are there for backup when needed. He also was able to source other types of respirators to add as backups, with individuals fit-tested to use those as needed.
"Dealing with the fine powders and silicas, you want that filter that protects against the particulates," Coon said. "We were able to focus our operation areas and divide up our PAPRs to the areas that needed them. So we had enough filters and masks to keep going."
After the PAPR units were back in proper service, that again left Shin-Etsu with an extra supply of the N95 respirators, so Coon called up the Akron Fire Department and arranged to donate another 180 masks.
Guseman said the representative from the AFD was extremely grateful for the donation. "It was like we gave them a half-million dollars," he said. "We like to partner with them anyways. We have a big business here in Akron and a chemical plant. Once in a while, they will be on site, and we work together if we have a spill. We consider them an ally in the community."
Coon added that the department comes out to the location on an annual basis to provide hands-on fire extinguisher training. He said the AFD indicated the donated masks would be dispersed among the department's firefighters and medics.
Guseman said that while there has been a bit of falloff in demand recently, Shin-Etsu is running pretty close to normal production at its Akron operations, with no need for layoffs or furloughs.
Eric Bishop, Shin-Etsu marketing manager for North America, said the firm does supply silicone rubber for components used in ventilators, and it has responded to customers who have significantly ramped up production for increased demand.
"In some cases, they are increasing their output by more than 20 times," he said. "We have been able to meet that demand. We have had to modify production schedules and expedite material shipment, but we have been meeting the demand on schedule."
Bishop said he has been told this level of demand for ventilators could last for the next year, which not only would address the immediate need but make sure all the communities, government agencies and others will be able to increase stockpile levels for "potential resurgence this year as well as the next potential respiratory pandemic."
As for other business areas, he said, medical and consumer products have been steady, but the severe drop in automotive production has impacted Shin-Etsu. "Many cosmetic plants have been deemed not to be essential, so that has hit us from a demand standpoint as well," Bishop said.