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 also was 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."
Livingston, N.J.-based food packaging and film manufacturer Inteplast Group said it is starting to notice absenteeism in its manufacturing workforce, although it's not causing significant problems.
"On the manufacturing side, we have started experiencing absenteeism at certain plants despite no confirmed COVID-19 in our workforce," Brenda Wilson, senior director of human resource and communication, said in a March 24 email. "The absence was mainly caused by family obligations during the school closings or personal sick leave due to flu-like symptoms.
"For now, it has not been a major issue but we will closely monitor the situation to determine our plan of actions," she said.
The more immediate staffing issue at the moment, she said, is reduction in overtime and limits on hiring for safety that is also reducing staffing levels somewhat.
Firms are reporting making a variety of changes to the workplaces to combat COVID-19, like creating additional lunchrooms so employees can spread out, adding hand sanitizer locations, cleaning more, teleworking and distancing in the workplace.
Danny Mishek, president of injection molder Vista Technologies L.L.C. in Stillwater, Minn., has given employees a letter to put in their cars saying that VistaTek is an "essential" company, in case of curfews or sharper travel limits complicate getting to work.
The company is located near the border with Wisconsin, and when Wisconsin instituted limits on public gatherings first, some employees who lived there wondered if there would be checks on roads going into Minnesota.
He tells employees of the importance of what they're doing supporting medical manufacturing, like the company's work with the Mayo Clinic and a medical device design center at the University of Minnesota.
In a letter to employees and in an interview, he compared the virus situation to a war and that making components for filtration and respiratory devices is similar to making ammunition in previous wars.
"That puts us in a wartime environment, but we're not fighting a war against a country or a nation ... we are (fighting) against a virus," he said.
But Mishek said he understands that employees are concerned, too, and they tell him they worry about bringing the virus home to their families.
In a March 26 interview, Maryland Thermoform Corp. CEO Scott MacDonald said the Baltimore company saw absenteeism spike on March 23.
"On (March 23), we probably only had 30 percent of our people show, and then Tuesday it bounced back," he said. "Monday was a bad day. I guess everyone got scared over the weekend."
MacDonald said for businesses like his, a small company of 70 employees with single-digit profit margins, its more challenging to endure economic difficulties than large corporations. When government officials talk about people getting money in various aid packages, he wants them to be clear on who is paying.
"Unless Donald Trump sends us money, we're not handing anybody money," he said. "We're not big enough."
Some business groups are hearing reports about increased absenteeism.
Jay Timmons, head of the National Association of Manufacturers, said in a March 26 media call the association is "hearing some anecdotal evidence of that" and is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on getting more specific guidance.
Mike Kathrotiya, president of Hi-Rel Plastics & Molding Inc. in Riverside, Calif., said employees at the small firm want to come to work as long as it remains open.
He said the company is taking a cautious approach on health concerns. A few older employees are not coming in and are staying home, he said.
The firm makes components for the health care industry and diagnostic equipment and has at least 10 letters from customers saying it's an essential company.
Kathrotiya said the company is committed to its customers—90 percent of them remain open. But he also said he's thinking about how the future unfolds.
"What if one of my employees gets infected?" he said, stressing that he wants to fulfill customer needs but also wondering if the company will reach a point of scaling back as an "extra precaution where nobody gets infected."