Automation is Key to Minimizing Manufacturers’ COVID-19 Risk

Automation is Key to Minimizing Manufacturers’ COVID-19 Risk
Automation is Key to Minimizing Manufacturers’ COVID-19 Risk

Many manufacturers thought they had COVID-19 risks under control, but as we enter fall, regions across North America, Europe and Asia are all seeing infection rates rise as they reopen their economies. To date, much of the focus has been implementing physical measures, including proper sanitization of workplaces and equipment, reconfiguring workplaces to maintain social distancing for workers, pre-screening employees and visitors, and stocking the right personal protective equipment (PPE). Still, we continue to see facility closures due to spikes of COVID-19 infections.

Too often, such closures occur due to the improper implementation of COVID-19 prevention and mitigation practices—either internally or outside the company—as employees lose the sense of urgency in protecting against the viral spread. This points to the need for manufacturers to implement training, monitoring, management, and communications programs aimed at preventing employee exposure and quickly containing an infection if it should occur.

The demand for automation

Many manufacturing firms have extended their safety programs to include COVID-19 mitigation, but large portions, if not all, of their initiatives, are handled manually, making it difficult to keep pace with rapidly changing conditions and disparate guidelines from multiple government agencies. Clearly, automation is required to keep pace.
Software platforms, such as human resources (HR), environmental health and safety (EHS) systems, and even some enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, are proving to provide effective solutions for COVID-19 mitigation. Automating the management and tracking of policies and procedures to allow higher compliance is exactly what these systems are built to do.
Early in the development of the pandemic, HR and EHS software providers began adding COVID-19 related data and management functionality into their software, giving manufacturers and other businesses a range of proven solutions from which to choose. Let’s examine several ways in which these software solutions can be used to automate COVID-19 prevention and mitigation efforts.

Monitoring COVID-19 risk

Manufacturers can manage and monitor their facilities and worksites to minimize employees’ risk of COVID-19 exposure. But more businesses are also asking employees to provide daily self-assessments to track their symptoms. HR and EHS software systems can automate the process by letting workers use a simple mobile app to answer a few questions each day based on national and regional guidelines. An app’s accessibility encourages self-reporting and helps identify potentially infected employees—before they come to work and expose others.

Meanwhile, many of these app-based HR and EHS software systems allow managers to review dashboards that show which workers have completed the mobile self-assessment, how many have symptoms or are at risk for COVID-19, and other related metrics. The resulting insights assist in decision-making about how to best protect workers’ health while keeping the business running. A number of solutions give managers the option to access these dashboards using either their computers or mobile devices, so they can readily make decisions whether at the facility, at home, or in quarantine.

Responding to COVID-19 exposure

Manufacturers will often document COVID-19 mitigation policies and processes manually. However, if potential COVID-19 exposure is detected within the facility even two or three months later, managers with manual systems will need to run through documentation to refresh themselves—losing valuable time before they are ready to act. By contrast, an HR or EHS software system can have policies and processes incorporated into them, empowering management teams to execute on their mitigation plans immediately.
Additionally, some of these solutions now incorporate contact tracing functionality that leverages self-reported symptoms, GPS tracing, test results, and other data. If an employee becomes infected with COVID-19, managers can see who that person has been in contact with over a 14-day period. This allows a manufacturer to rapidly take the first steps in mitigating an outbreak by identifying individual users throughout the workforce who have been potentially exposed, so that they can be tested and quarantined, if necessary.
Many different types of software solutions also facilitate company-wide communications by automating the process of sending new updates out to a manufacturers’ workforce. Manufacturers can leverage their HR, EHS, or even Google Drive to find solutions to increase communications to their workers.

Compliance and reporting

Adhering to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines that remain relatively stable is one thing. Staying on top of multiple, continually evolving COVID-19 guidelines and mandates at the nation, state, territory, and even city-level can be nearly impossible with manual documentation. App-based HR and EHS software providers regularly push out updates on policy changes to their software to help ensure that companies comply with legal requirements. Many of the software solutions also offer the option for manufacturers to customize forms and templates to support their industry-specific or geographic requirements.
Some manufacturing firms also face local health authority requirements to report the presence of COVID-19 systems among their employees on a weekly or even daily basis. There is no doubt that HR and EHS software can simplify the process by enabling managers to quickly and simply export a list of workers with positive symptoms.
For manufacturers that operate multiple plants across different regions, it will be important to consider options within their HR or EHS solutions designed to support local compliance and reporting while also giving management the ability to see trends across the organization.

Prevention training

Whether it’s heavy equipment or a virus, long-term exposure to a potential risk leads to complacency. Statistics show that regular safety talks can reduce injuries by up to 85%. Similar talks or other forms of training can be used to educate or update employees on COVID-19 prevention and mitigation. Yet, while managers can spend hours developing training for employees, they often lack insight into how much of the content has actually been consumed.
Leveraging HR or EHS or even some ERP software solutions to automate the management of safety talks and training sessions, can make it significantly easier to roll out new ones as needed. Typical functions have been automated by software providers include sending out  invitations to read content, confirming they were received, capturing who has attended a talk or completed the training, and getting feedback on the sessions.

Containing costs

Even in the best economic times, many manufacturers have hesitated to invest the funds, time and resources in software systems to automate their safety practices. However, failing to do so can be far costlier.

Consider a best-case scenario where the detection of infected employees leads to a three-day closure for sanitization and testing to ensure that only healthy workers return to the site. In a mid-size manufacturing firm with 200 employees, there may be 40 team members in management, sales and other operations that can continue offsite, as well as workers who are either assisting with the onsite sanitization or have taken personal time off. That leaves 160 workers sidelined by the closure.
Now, using the $22.54 average hourly wage in manufacturing, according to Trading Economics, let’s do the math: $22.54 per hour x 160 workers x 8 hours x 3 days = $86,553.60 for the closure. That doesn’t even account for other factors, such as overtime, rush shipping charges to meet customer deadlines once the facility reopens, and potentially lost business from customers that turn to other suppliers. Moreover, many facility closures due to COVID-19 last longer than three days.
By contrast, cloud-based HR, EHS, and ERP platforms provide easy-to-use, affordable options, starting at less than $5,000 per year. Moreover, cloud-based solutions typically enable manufacturers to get up and running on basic COVID-19 management processes in less than a day. With rapid deployment and an annual investment representing 6% of the cost of a three-day facility closure, the higher risk is in not employing software to automate COVID-19 prevention and mitigation.

About The Author

Ryan Quiring is co-founder and CEO of SafetyTek Software. He brings more than a decade of experience as a senior automation consultant and functional safety engineer working on massive capital projects globally in the scope of process automation.

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