Swagelok shares its best practices for essential manufacturing operations

Company ran table-top exercise in recent years to gauge impact of possible pandemic; key documents used to define concepts and actions taken

By Kevin Parker April 13, 2020

More than 200 manufacturers attended a Zoom call briefing from Swagelok Co., the maker of fluid system components, that outlined with considerable clarity the steps the company is taking to continue operations as an essential manufacturer amidst the Coronavirus crisis.

The briefing, which took place on April 8th, was hosted by MAGNET (Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network), a consultancy that supports manufacturers in north-east Ohio.

Swagelok Co. is an approximately $2 billion privately held developer of fluid system products headquartered in Solon, OH. Swagelok’s manufacturing operations include about 5,500 employees at 20 manufacturing facilities in the U.S., Isle of Man and China. The company’s products and services are sold through a network of authorized sales and service centers in 70 countries.

Swagelok is an essential business as defined by the Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity and infrastructure security agency (CSIA).

Steps taken by Swagelok to continue operations include the following:

  • Enforcement of social distancing measures
  • Associate self-check prior to entering sites
  • Enhanced hygiene protocols in production and operations areas based on Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines
  • Mandatory remote work for all office associates and, as feasible, support associates, to a total of about 800 associates
  • Quarantining of associates reporting potential or confirmed exposure to someone with the virus
  • Staggered shifts to reduce population overlap
  • A structured approach to communications within the management team and with its employee associates, customers and supply chain.

Throughout the presentation, Swagelok managers described a highly deliberative approach that relies on an abundance of caution, key documents and individual responsibility.

Swagelok’s preparations for the possibility of a pandemic began some time ago as part of the activities of its long-standing strategic risk committee. “Several years ago, we did a table-top exercise for the eventuality of a pandemic that served as a good tool for guiding our initial actions,” said Ward Dumm, vice president of operations.

Having a Swagelok facility in China helped the corporate management team to better understand some of the profound implications of the virus’ spread. Realization of what was coming led to the formation of a crisis response team that included three sub-teams, for 1) associate impact, 2) business continuity for customers and the supply chain and 3) communications, both internal and external.

Its most immediate actions, which Dumm described as values-based, included associate well-being and safety and taking needed actions regarding customers and the supply chain. Daily executive management meetings and leadership communications, and bi-weekly communications with all associates drive the process.

Associate impact

The sub-team on associate impact included representatives from human resources, operations and communications.

“The guidelines we’ve enacted are based on recommendations from WHO [The World Health Organization], the CDC and medical experts. In cases where medical experts wouldn’t hazard an opinion, we exercised an abundance of caution,” said Hannah Delis, director of global human resources.

At first, work-at-home was optional for employees able to do so but was subsequently deemed mandatory. The IT and communications department addressed the technical challenges involved.

Associates working at production sites were issued a letter that verified their role as part of a critical manufacturing enterprise, available in the event they were questioned by authorities, which has happened in at least several instances.

Entering facility premises is governed by a self-check process, defined by a key document. In brief, the process verifies the individual is

  • Not under quarantine at that moment
  • Not experienced COVID-19 symptoms in the last 72 hours and more than seven days have passed since the onset of any symptoms (the 7/3 rule for symptomatic associates) including fever, cough, respiratory illness or difficulty breathing
  • Not waiting for COVID-19 test results or been in contact with someone waiting for results
  • Not had close contact with or cared for someone diagnosed with COVID-19
  • Not engaged in Level 2 or Level 3 travel, as defined by the CDC.
  • Not returning to work without a release to return to work from a medical provider.

On the plant floor

Once in the facility, achieving social distancing required cessation of all large group meetings. Limits were placed on the number of people allowed to congregate in common areas. And shifts were staggered by one half hour to avoid congestion and allow for area cleaning, according to Wayne Ostrosky, director of operations, fittings group.

“Work cells were separated from each other, or where that wasn’t possible, plexiglass barriers between work cells were installed,” said Ostrosky. “Managers desks were moved. All interior doors were propped open. And in rest areas only one chair is permitted per table.”

The CDC defines close contact as being within six feet for a prolonged period, i.e., for one-half hour, or subject to exposure to another person’s excretions.

“It’s not our culture to distance ourselves from each other so we’ve put tape on the floors, we’ve posted signage and we have bi-weekly communications with all associates to emphasize and remind ourselves of the need to comply with these steps,” said Dumm. “Just demonstrating what six feet of separation looks like is important.”

The cleaning protocols used within the facilities for suspected or confirmed cases of contamination are based on CDC guidelines. CAD drawings were used to define the areas to be cleaned.

In some cases, where work had been performed by two associates working in tandem, the less optimal alternative of having it performed by a single person was adopted. Rather than a collective heave-ho, heavy lifts are accomplished using machines whenever possible. Where collaboration among shop-floor associates is essential, video cameras and other technology is being used so that details of work being performed can be shared.

Document and communicate

It is important to have documents that define the terms used in policies and the protocols that outline procedures, said Delis.

Documents that Swagelok shared with other manufacturers on the call included close contact guidelines and how to maintain the six-foot guideline, good hygiene practices and cleaning protocols by security level, return-to-work policy and hardship paid time off policy.

One factor influencing company policies and their execution is how difficult it is for anyone to see a doctor now, Delis said.

Swagelok will provide masks for all employees, but their use will be optional. The company is providing guidelines on the proper use of homemade masks but will not allow scarves due to potential entanglement issues.

Author Bio: Senior contributing editor, CFE Media