Key considerations for manufacturers as economies begin to reopen

Workplace safety is one of several factors leaders need to prioritize

May 22, 2020
Manufacturing COVID-19

As parts of the country allow businesses to begin reopening, companies across all industries are dealing with the same issues as the coronavirus pandemic continues: ensuring workplace safety; setting up health screening for employees; and ensuring that operations run smoothly. 

In the manufacturing sector, many businesses have been open and operating during the shutdown—though may have been doing so at a reduced capacity—because they were deemed essential. However, manufacturers will still have plenty of safety and regulatory factors to weigh as local economies start reopening. Here are some areas manufacturing business leaders should address.

Workplace safety policies in the manufacturing environment

Given that manufacturing shop floors have limited options for remote work, companies need to determine how best to structure workflows and employee movements to ensure safety. That might be particularly crucial in an environment that involves the constant exchange of parts and tools. 

“On the shop floor, wearing gloves and personal protective equipment is not always effective,” said RSM industrial products senior analyst Shruti Gupta. 

Along with providing employees with personal protective equipment and implementing hygiene practices, businesses need to have readiness plans to ensure efficient site entry, including employee health screenings and clear processes for visitors and contractors. Manufacturers need to implement physical spacing for workflows on the shop floor, as needed, and consider alternative factory layouts.

Companies should consider staggering shifts to avoid overlap as employees enter and exit facilities, and evaluate whether to continue to have common areas such as cafeterias and conference rooms. It may also be useful to increase the amount of time employees have for meal breaks, to allow for cleaning and hygiene practices before and after meals.

Navigating regulations for multiple sites

The approach to reopening the economy varies by state and at the local level, depending on decisions from governors and other lawmakers. Manufacturers that have plants in multiple states may need to contend with disparate regulations and timeframes as reopening happens. 

One practice middle market manufacturers might consider is putting together a central team (or war room) to develop policies and guidelines for how operations around the country can adhere to changing regulations.

“Individual, local facilities should have a level of freedom and autonomy,” said Gupta. “Every region is going to be different.” The key, she said, is to take actions that balance what is allowed at the local level, what is allowed at the federal level, and what is best for the company and its employees.

It will also be important to account for changing federal guidelines and regulations that already exist under agencies such as the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. 

Liability protections

The potential for lawsuits presents a range of threats as manufacturers implement return-to-work plans. Here are several areas of liability companies should be aware of:

  • Exposure liability. Manufacturers need to mitigate and manage possible risks related to workers, visitors and contractors being exposed to the coronavirus as a result of business practices. If manufacturers seek to fill supply chain gaps with independent contractors, for instance, business leaders should be aware of potential liability issues that come along with doing so. 
  • Discrimination. Companies should assess the risks of reopening using factors such as age or underlying health issues, which could fall under anti-discrimination rules.
  • Health privacy. Laws designed to protect employee health information may conflict with reopening requirements around health testing and evaluating employee vulnerability to the coronavirus.

A path forward

Though some manufacturing companies never actually stopped operations and closed their doors over the course of the shutdown, that does not mean it will be easy for them to adapt as economies gradually reopen.

"It is a challenge, nevertheless,” said Gupta. “What does make it a little easier is the fact that they’ve been open for the past six to eight weeks, so they have some level of preparation already in place, as opposed to a company that is just reopening now.”

Manufacturers that don’t already have a phased plan for how to adapt their workplace guidelines over the weeks and months to come should consider doing so, accounting for the various needs of plants or facilities in different regions. Along with health and safety measures, companies should address employee needs for child care and transportation, “because people are going to remember how businesses treated them during the crisis," Gupta said.

As manufacturers adapt their workplaces for the present crisis, they should also take note of what practices are worth keeping.

“As we reopen and think about post-COVID-19, companies should think about what are those short-term solutions to have in place that would be good long term as well,” Gupta said. “Changes that won’t just help during the return to work, but could be solutions for the future, too.”

Subscribe to Manufacturing Insights

Sign up to receive our monthly tax, accounting and operational information ranging from tips for addressing daily challenges to strategic and long-term planning initiatives.