Social distancing in the factory. Temperature checks when the workday starts. Higher-than-normal absenteeism as employees worry about exposure to the coronavirus on the job.
That's what plastics manufacturing companies are grappling with right now, as they work to both keep production flowing, particularly in government-designated "essential" industries.
The situation is fluid and one executive said it's trying to manage an "unknown future." A few cases have popped up in the industry, such as four contract employees at a Dow Inc. chemicals and plastics plant in Plaquemine, La., testing positive for the coronavirus.
Some companies say worry is naturally filtering into the factory floor.
"We have seen higher-than-normal absenteeism, which anecdotally we interpret as people fearing workforce transmission of COVID-19," said Jim Roper, director of sales at thermoforming firm Universal Plastics Group Inc. in Holyoke, Mass. "The spike is so quick, it's hard to account for it any other way."
Companies responding to an email blast from Plastics News were not reporting problems meeting production from any absences. Some noted that their employees wanted to come to work and praised how the people in their organizations are handling it.
Roper said most employees at Universal are "taking a calm and measured approach, practicing workforce separation and good hygiene."
Firms said they are monitoring the situation, but some are outlining what they will do if cases emerge at their companies.
Blow molder Lifetime Products Inc, which has several thousand employees at factories in Utah, Tennessee and China, told employees in a detailed March 24 letter from President and CEO Richard Hendrickson that it expects a positive COVID-19 case eventually in its U.S. factories. He wrote that "the worst of the virus impact on our country and our state is yet to come."
In an interview, Hendrickson praised his employees and said the firm is taking a lesson from how it handled coronavirus at its Xiamen, China, plant, instituting temperature checks when employees come in to work.
"I've been very offensive with all the measures that we know of mostly because I've got a factory in China and so this is kind of our second time through it," Hendrickson said. "As soon as it started rolling through the U.S., I thought, 'We've learned over there; let's get aggressive.'
"At the factory in China, we found out that one of the most important indicators of sickness obviously is the temperature and that's not news to anybody," he said. "But the ability [is] to pick it up on employees, sometimes [when] they don't recognize that they're running a fever already."
The company was also aggressive with surgical masks in its China factory, he said, but noted tight supplies in the U.S. and cultural differences between the two countries around wearing masks.
He said about 100 of the company's employees in China eventually were tested for COVID-19, but none had the virus.
Taking strong measures like the temperature checks helps employees' peace of mind, Hendrickson believes.
"I think more often than not, it really provides a sense of security with your surrounding work environment, when you know that everybody you work with is self-checking and also being monitored by the company as we get into work every single day," he said.
He said the company's employees "have been absolutely amazing. A lot our workforce has been with us 10, 20, even 30 years. It's a great spirit of teamwork, really in a time of unknown future."