Staying safe in the “new normal” of COVID-19

As companies and manufacturers start to re-open in the near future, health and safety is a top priority.

By Gregory Hale May 31, 2020

Countries are looking to get back to work and that means manufacturers are contemplating starting up processes they slowed down to a snail’s pace or getting idled plants back up and operating, but in the wake of tragic incidents that occurred in India last week, this a time to make all the right decisions.

And whether it is restarting production or making sure workers remain safe and virus free at the office, safety issues will remain top of mind in the coming months.

“For many people this is a ‘first’ in many ways,” said Steve Elliott, senior director – marketing and a safety expert at Schneider Electric. “Not just coming to terms with the new ways of working together, but a ‘first’ having to restart operations after an enforced shutdown. And some things just can’t be done ‘remotely.’

“One area I often talk about are my 3 Cs = clear, concise communication,” Elliott said. “So, learn from experience – keep things simple, easily understood. Make sure that everybody fully understands the inherent risks of the facilities and their operations before starting.”

Understanding that risk often falls on experienced operators, but the problem is, quite a few are retiring.

Finding ‘competency’

“Shutting down and starting up a facility create very dangerous conditions in many process plants and with continuous processes in those facilities running for longer periods nonstop, from 3 to 5 years or longer in some cases, the ‘competency’ around starting up or shutting down is not developed or is lost with experienced operators retiring,” said Luis Duran, global product line manager safety for ABB.

One message coming out is not to rush anything.

“Sometimes we need to go backwards before going forwards,” Elliott said. “Take a moment to look back and see what can be learned from past start-ups, before setting a path for the future; don’t make tomorrow’s headline news and spend a lifetime living with the consequences.”

Thinking ahead, and some technology could help.

“In addition to the implementation of startup or shutdown, a checklist could help mitigate the issue” Duran said. “Operator training and use of process simulators are ways in which technology could support operators to achieve the desired competency.”

Elliott provided a little checklist for workers to consider:

  • Perform operational readiness checks with competent persons prior to start-up of units that are shut down
  • Minimize the on-site team time at risk
  • Ensure that process startup reviews are fully complete
  • Ensure completion of any actions identified during the readiness reviews.

Understand procedures

One thing everyone has to do is ensure re-start procedures clearly describe how the operation is to be carried out safely, explaining the consequences of deviation from procedure, describe key safeguards, address special situations and emergencies. Make sure the process can be restarted safely – or don’t do it.

Also, Elliott mentioned there should be a check for relevant, timely competency, not just formal training, but on the job training. Ask questions like when was the last time the individual went through a start-up? What has changed to the process, procedures since the last restart?

Elliott mentioned also, some technology may help provide “new eyes” on the challenge.

“If key resources are remote, if there are limited personnel on site, then maybe smart devices and cameras can provide ‘eyes’ in the field, obviously ensuring the devices are managed by hot work policy, and are suitable for use in hazardous locations,” he said.

Human fatigue that personnel may have been under may also play into restarting. “Factors include anxiety, stress, fatigue can be ‘silent killers’ that lead to unexpected behavior, in even the most experienced personnel, and these can be pushed to the limit when restarting operations,” Elliott said.

Emergency responders standing by

Another item to check on is emergency response procedures and resources.

“Make sure that these vital and critical emergency responders are prepared and ready before restart – don’t wait until it’s too late,” Elliott said.

In terms of workers coming back, manufacturers have to maintain safe working practices, follow procedures put in place before social distancing, proper hygiene, different PPE use and make sure this is reflected in existing operating and maintenance procedures.

“We are lucky to have a plethora of information from agencies like the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) and even, too, with our local municipalities that are giving guidance with the pandemic and also about going back to work,” said Eric Glass, senior risk and safety advisor for building life and safety technologies at UL.

“Right now, because of the uncharted waters we are in, this is where a lot of organizations are focusing on for that particular information because this is the new normal,” Glass said. “There are a lot of people trying to figure out what the new normal will mean to their organization.

Workers will see a change

Right now, organizations are wrestling with who is going to work from home and who will now have to come back into the workplace and what will that workplace look like.

Some of those plans include thinking about cleaning from shift to shift.

“From a manufacturing standpoint, if you have three shifts, there are employees using the same workstations, now employers are having to contemplate how to clean and sanitize workstations at turnover,” Glass said. “We need to look at what needs to be done. That is what is going on right now. They are trying to figure out how to operate in this new normal.”

That new normal may not include all workers going back at the same time, but rather in a staggered approach.

“There is a methodical approach many industries are using,” Glass said. “Overall, most industries are doing a very good job of regulating themselves. They understand the dangers of COVID-19. I think you will see staged approaches throughout the country. The speed of that will vary. I have not seen a company yet that said we are going back 100 percent (right away).”

In terms of when workers go back to work, what do they and the employer have to think about?

Be on same page

“The absolute first and most important step you can take as an employer is to ensure your employees returning to work understand the hazards related to COVID-19 and what their responsibilities are when they return to the workplace,” Glass said. “There is a lot of good information out there, but there is a lot of misinformation out there. An employer has to make sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to how you want them to operate while they are resuming their job. That is the most important thing, the awareness. Without awareness, a lot of wrong decisions can be made from the employee standpoint.”

When workers do come back, there are organizations looking to test them as they are walking in the door.

“I have seen action plans that incorporate temperature testing and readings and I have also seen plans that are not doing that. That is not to say one is better than the other, but they are making their individual plans.”

Ensuring a safe start up and making solid decisions to allow for a virus-free work environment are key factors to get the world back up and running, and it will take all companies – large and small – to stay smart so they can all help get the economy flowing again.

This content originally appeared on ISSSource.comISSSource is a CFE Media content partner.

Original content can be found at Control Engineering.

Author Bio: Gregory Hale is the editor and founder of Industrial Safety and Security Source (, a news and information website covering safety and security issues in the manufacturing automation sector.