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Welcome to the Newsroom: News Stories

Warehouse Practices & Measures Special Edition – COVID-19

Monday, April 6, 2020  

Our regular monthly “Tips” column is being extended to cover what we are seeing and hearing as best practices related to management of the Novel Coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic in warehouse operations.

On March 20th WERC presented a panel discussion on “COVID-19: How Supply Chain Leaders Are Keeping Staff & Customers Safe and Healthy’.  WERC brought together a panel of warehouse and supply chain leaders to share how they are responding to this crisis.  This session was attended by 200+ warehousing industry peers. Topics included people and labor management; customer assurance; communications; safety measures; and government regulations, topics ideal for anyone responsible for warehousing, logistics and transportation operations at all management levels.

If you missed the presentation a recording is available through the WERC website at https://werc.org/page/COVID-19 .  There you will find additional resources that we have compiled to help you stay informed on this rapidly evolving situation

Following are some best practices which the panel members discussed and you should consider

Risk Management

Note that this is NOT an “after the cows get out of the barn” issue.  While all businesses should have a Risk Management Plan the existing plan should be frequently reviewed and updated as new issues such as the COVID-19 event may appear.  Many companies have specific individuals who have responsibility for this subject.  Some companies have full time coverage through their Supplier Management, Procurement, Loss Prevention or Employee Safety and Health teams.

The COVID-19 risks are unusual for sure, but there are likely existing procedures and protocols in place that the organization can leverage to help deal with this event.  It is important to bring together all of the responsible parties and discuss/review your plans.  Best practice is to conduct these meetings using tele/videoconferencing , there are many good tools such as Zoom and Skype for doing this.

Things to be discussed include: 

  • Working with suppliers, and upsets in the upstream supply chain generally.  What are your suppliers (and their suppliers) production plans?  Do you have alternative sources for products and services?  Do you need to reduce inbound order quantity or cancel existing orders?  Can you secure the flow of critical supplies? 

  • Working with customers.  Reach out to address their general concerns and the possible reduction or increase in orders falling out of this event. 

  • How stable are the inbound and outbound logistics environments – carriers, brokers, ports, etc? Work with the carriers on implementing 24/7 deliveries and pickups where needed.

  • Will you have adequate workforce coverage if demand grows beyond normal peaks or if part of the workforce suddenly becomes unavailable due to illness or government “shelter at home” mandates?

  • How will you deal with excess workers if demand slows?  Could you maintain existing headcount by reducing individual hours?    

  • Do you have plans for covering key employee who could become unavailable due to illness, etc?  Is there a cross-training strategy?  Do you have adequate documentation to guide associates unfamiliar with processes, etc?

  • Will there be adequate support for equipment and technology used in your warehouse.  Reach out to hardware and systems vendors and support staff regarding availability.  Ensure availability of parts and supplies used by in-house maintenance personnel.

Typically we planning for risk management and mitigation are part of an on-going process which is modified as a result of changes in the marketplace, product mix, manpower and technology.  New risks present themselves regularly, but the global impact of COVID-19 may not be something that was expected.  Regardless, we should all examine the impacts listed above and others to take needed actions now and incorporated our learnings for the future.

Beyond risks, best practice organizations have a “Disaster Recovery” plan which could allow for transfer or consolidation of some operations to other facilities.  Another possibility may be the need to ramp production and distribution up for products in high need.  For facilities faced with shutdown or slowdown, how will you bring them back online in a stable manner?

Employee Concerns

Best practice organizations understand the concerns of their employees.  Panelist Brian Devine, Senior V.P. of EmployBridge, one of the largest U.S. staffing firms, noted that on March 19 they conducted a survey of their associates about their concerns regarding COVID-19.  They asked the following questions…

  1. Are your work hours being affected by COVID-19? (Decreasing, Increasing, No Change)

  2. Has your workplace taken additional precautions to decrease risks associated with COVID-19?  (Yes/No)

  3. How concerned are you about COVID-19?  (Scale of 1-10)

  4. What are you most concerned about right now?  (List of 7 possibilities)

Brian presented graphs showing the results of over 10,000 responses showing that 53% saw their hours decreased, 10% saw an increase and 38% saw no change.  Regarding additional precautions 73% said yes their employers were implementing additional precautions.

On the question of how concerned they were 72% rated their concerns at a 6 or higher with the largest group, nearly 41% rating a 10.  Only 16% gave a rating of under 5.  Clearly there is a lot of concern.

On the subject of “What are you concerned about right now?” the top 3 responses were – Job and Income (44%), Family Health (24%), Personal Health (17%).  Responses showed the least concern for access to the internet for children’s education (>1%), Childcare (2%) and Access to Food (2%).  Just under 5% indicated that they had no concerns.

A staffing firm like EmployBridge provides workers for a wide variety of industries, so these responses are broad based.  Specific industry segments may see different responses.  You could expect employment to be up in critical distribution areas such as healthcare, and perhaps down in something like school and restaurant supplies due to closures. 

However regarding the responses to the last question on what associates are concerned about, it is doubtful that the responses would change a lot.  Their focus is on job stability and income, family and personal health.  The subjects should be the focus of management with respect to employee satisfaction and retention.  To the degree possible maintain a level of stability. 

Megan Smith, CEO of Symbia Logistics recommends that you understand the individual risk factors of each employee.  What are their needs for child care with schools closed?   Wil they need to work a different shift or need time off or reduced hours to care for children or sick family members.  Understand their anxiety about possibly bringing something home from the workplace.  She suggested the use of “Phone Trees” as another means of staying in contact.

Megan and others noted that your company should create an “Essential Service” letter or card that employees can carry with them to show that they are needed in the event that they are stopped by authorities in areas of restricted travel.

Operations

As discussed earlier, the panel reviewed the need for creation of a “Re-Start” plan to help suppliers, customers and furloughed employees know when they might go back to work.  Ideally you should have plans that address turndowns and closure as well as the re-start.

Keep associates active by shifting to a part time approach where hours may be reduced but jobs are still there.  If business is booming don’t overwork your base as this can create dissatisfaction and overworked individuals are more susceptible to illness.

Deb Parme’, VP Global SC Planning and Graciela Cruz, Director of Global Planning at Amway, along wiith Greg Younghans, President of Reliable Management Solutions reviewed a set of operational best practices that companies should have in place including…

  • A solid communications plan which encompasses company management, staff and associates, Suppliers, Customers, and other stakeholders such as banks and investors.  This should include regular updates via email, web portals, etc. discussing what is currently being done and what the plans are for the future.

  • Personal hygiene for associates including requirements for hand washing, personal protective equipment, etc.

  • Social distancing rules for the workplace and the use of work from home for staff where appropriate.

  • Workplace cleanliness increase attention to disinfecting work areas, break and restroom facilities. 
  • Conduct a complete between shift wipe-down of hand rails, desks, lifts and other equipment workers typically come in contact with
  • Ensure adequate quantities and use of hand sanitizer, antiseptic wipes. Consider non-traditional sources – some distilleries and breweries are shifting alcohol to sanitizers.
  • Limit access to the facility.  Meet drivers and other non-essential visitors  in the yard vs. having them come into the facility, and if required to enter take temps first.
  • Limit use of daily breaks and lunch to on-site so that workers do not get exposed to infections out of the workplace.
  • Implement additional restrictions for new hires to include temperature checks and bar anyone who may appear to have a fever or respiratory illness
  • Conduct temperature check of employees as they arrive and depart the facility.  Note that the digital thermometers needed may be in short supply
  • Limit interaction between associates during shift changes.  Conduct regular team stand up meetings in smaller groups of 10 or less.

The New England Journal of Medicine recently published a study by John Hopkins showing how long the virus can live on surfaces – surfaces we find commonly in warehouse operations such as cardboard (up to 24 hours) and plastics/stainless steel (up to 3 days).  You can read a summary of the study at https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/new-coronavirus-stable-hours-surfaces .

During this time we are seeing an exponential growth in the direct to consumer parts of our businesses as many retail store fronts are closed.  This will be taxing for most operations and you may need to hire additional part time or temporary workers to keep up.  If so there may be workers available due to layoffs from other companies.  Work with local companies who may be furloughing workers to identify those that you could pick up.

Ensure that you and your staffing providers follow the guidelines for new hires to eliminate the possibility of bringing the infection in-house.

In addition to the broadcast webinar on March 20, WERC conducted a smaller Peer-to-Peer group discussion via Zoom for Supply Chain Leaders on March 26 to gather their responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Many of the items discussed were in line with the March 20 webinar, however a new area of discussion included disruptions to international freight. 

Bill Miller of Faure Brothers indicated that transportation does not appear to have any impact beyond what we have seen with the tariffs.

Jeremy Banta noted news regarding the shutdown of some ports such as Long Beach, and airlines like Lufthansa that are re-configuring passenger aircraft to accommodate more freight.

Another discussion point was the need for special handing for inbound freight including sanitizing packaging and pallets (note the earlier reference here to the study by John Hopkins).  Megan Smith stated that some employees are not comfortable with wearing gloves as they may have allergies, etc.  Latex gloves in particular may be an issue.

The practice of taking employee temperatures before and after shifts was reviewed along with taking temps for truck drivers and others who may enter the facility.  While there was general agreement on this practice, the availability of digital thermometers is a concern.

Gerald Perritt of the Perritt Group recommended preparation of a “care package” for company drivers and others who may need to leave the facility and visit other locations, customers, etc.  The package would include a copy of the “Essential Service” letter discussed earlier plus gloves, sanitizers, wipes and other items those individuals may need to have close at hand.

Bill Miller pointed out that anytime an infection is discovered we should exercise due diligence in doing both root source analysis and reach out to others inside and outside of the facility who the infected party may have had contact with.

In closing, Steve Hopper of Inviscid Consulting noted that he has been hearing some pushback against the management strategy of Lean/JIT.  Some are suggesting that this strategy is unwise in that we now find ourselves with lean inventories of some needed materials.  Another perspective however is that many businesses may have substantially lower inventory investments in goods which are not currently moving well.

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Key best practices:

  • Review and revise your Risk Management, Risk Mitigation and Recovery Plans.  Add any “lessons learned” from the current event.
  • Establish on-going communications plans for Suppliers, Customers, Employees and Stakeholders using mail, email, web portals and social media outlets.
  • Create an “Essential Service” letter for use by employees to confirm their need to travel.  Consider also the inclusion of a “care package” containing needed items.
  • Maintain a safe and sanitary environment.  Clean, Clean, Clean lunch rooms, rest rooms, any items handled by employees.
  • Ensure sources and alternates for products and supplies, particularly disinfecting and PPE.
  • Understand individual employee concerns and needs – personal and family, including healthcare and hours of work.
  • Do daily employee health and temperature checks and limit interactions with others by restricting off site lunches and breaks.
  • Limit access to facilities by outsiders including delivery personnel and visitors
  • Look into opportunities for using idled facilities to augment growth at other sites by shifting products.  After all we typically do the same thing at all sites – receive, store, ship

WERC understands that warehousing and distribution of goods is commonly considered to be one of the “Essential Services”.  Activities at warehouses move the products that the greater community needs to survive.  Help ensure your business’s survival during this COVID-19 event by following the suggestions outlined here.