Safe to say that the typical American doesn't give more than a passing thought to rubber most days. But the current COVID-19 pandemic is proving just how essential rubber, and the products made from the material, are to the country and the world.
At a time when some businesses deemed non-essential by federal and state governments are trying to skirt the rules and guidelines, those in the rubber industry have a mandate to continue churning out products or providing services.
Automotive and transportation sectors remain a key component to keeping the country operating, and the medical and industrial segments use rubber in a wide variety of applications. But the essential uses of rubber are wide and deep.
Guidelines from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security not only call on these essential industries to stay open during the pandemic, they also remind them of their obligation to help during these tough times.
"If you work in a critical infrastructure industry, as defined by the Department of Homeland Security, such as health care services and pharmaceutical and food supply, you have a special responsibility to maintain your normal work schedule," the federal government states.
Erick Sharp is founder of Ace Products & Consulting L.L.C., a Ravenna, Ohio-based testing and research development firm serving the rubber industry.
Ohio, with more than 2,500 cases of coronavirus as of April 1, was one of the first states to take measures to try to stop the spread of the virus. So much so that Gov. Mike DeWine was widely criticized or applauded as those efforts stood out early on.
The state has told businesses to read guidelines to determine for themselves whether they are essential businesses and be ready to prove they are if authorities show up at their door, Sharp said.
Ace easily qualified to be an essential business because of the kind of work it's doing for companies providing needed services, Sharp said.
"Just look at the types of stuff we're dealing with," he said about the testing and research and development work his employees are doing. "I knew we couldn't not keep up with those types of things. It was pretty clear cut to know we're essential to what is going on right now."
Ace keeps documents describing its work near the front door ready to show officials if they show up asking about why the business continues to remain open.
While the company still operates, it's anything but business as usual, Sharp said.
A total of three of the company's employees can work from home. And the lab has been rearranged to allow for space between workers.
"There's obviously social distancing. So for us we had to create work zones in our lab. Six-foot cubes that are each a zone that contains essential equipment," Sharp said.
R.D. Abbott Co. Inc. of Cerritos, Calif., also considers itself an essential business and has continued to operate during the pandemic, but with new operating rules.
The firm supplies health care, medical device and infrastructure elastomers as well as laboratory services.
R.D. Abbott said it made the decision to remain open "in accordance with all current national, state and local guidelines associated with reducing the spread of the coronavirus."
California issued "shelter-in-place" orders for non-essential businesses on March 19, but the company is continuing to operate to supply "critical health care and infrastructure materials," the company said.
R.D. Abbott also has made changes at the workplace, including having all non-essential work move off-site, the company said.
"With minimal staff, good planning and communication becomes essential," President Keith Thomas said in a statement. "During this dynamic situation, our commitment to collaboratively determining order requirements, identifying constraints and developing relevant solutions for our customers and supplier partners is unwavering."
R.D. Abbott has barred visitors to its facility, where only essential employees are now working at safe distances from one another. No more than 10 workers can be at the facility at any one time, the company said. Daily sanitizing also is taking place.
Over at tool maker M.R. Mold & Engineering Corp. in Brea, Calif., the company's 30 workers remain busy with traditional orders as the company also has seen an increase in requests for quotes regarding potential coronavirus-related work.
"We're doing an awful lot of quoting for medical products indirectly for Toyota, for Ford. Companies you would not think you would be dealing with. Trying to help as we can. We have the capacity. We have a full staff. We're going to quote anything that comes in the door," Marketing Director Geri Anderson said. "Nothing has come through to be a positive (purchase order) yet, but there's a lot of unknowns out there, especially when you are dealing with Ford and Toyota. Normally, they make cars, but now they are dealing with medical equipment."
M.R. Mold recently moved to a new, larger location that helps the company better deal with health issues these days. More space on the shop floor and in the office means workers can more easily stake out their own safe space to work.
"We put a lot of hazard and safety precautions in place. Buying cleaning products is like an Easter egg hunt. It's hard to find them," Anderson said.
M.R. Mold had an easy case to prove it's an essential business as 95 percent of its work involves medical silicone products. The company also is covered by rules that call for the continuation of work by companies working with steel, the marketing director said.
Making needed changes
At Ace, back in Ohio, equipment used by more than one person is sanitized when operators change. And each work area has its own sanitizing station.