Manufacturing plants and fulfillment centers of different types have faced tremendous challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. The fact is that these challenges aren’t going to vanish suddenly. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has established guidance for the reopening and ongoing operation of manufacturing plants and fulfillment centers. The CDC developed this comprehensive guidance with the assistance of other governmental agencies. 

Overview of Exposure Risk Among Manufacturing and Fulfillment Center Workers

In order to develop and implement a meaningful COVID-19 safety plan for workers in manufacturing businesses and at fulfillment centers, understanding potential risk exposure is fundamental. The U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has published a book entitled Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19. In the text, there are four so-called distinctive factors that affect workers’ risk of exposure to COVID-19 in manufacturing and fulfillment center settings:

  • Distance between workers
  • Duration of contact
  • Type of contact
  • Other distinctive risk increasing factors

Distance Between Workers

A particular area of risk in the manufacturing and fulfillment industries is the fact that employees typically work close to one another on a consistent basis. This includes working close on assembly lines and in similar settings. 

In addition, there are other situations in a manufacturing or fulfillment operation in which workers end up in close proximity to one another. These include:

  • Clocking in and out stations
  • Break rooms
  • Lockers or changing rooms

Every effort must be made to enhance the distance between workers in a manufacturing plant or fulfillment center. The CDC recommends that a minimum of physical distancing of six feet be maintained between workers in a manufacturing plant or fulfillment center. Indeed, there are infectious disease experts that recommend an even greater distance between workers. 

The reality is that despite best efforts, constantly maintaining a six feet distance between employees may prove impossible in a manufacturing plant or fulfillment center. There are some additional strategies that can be instituted and employed to enhance worker safety when distancing is impossible that will be discussed shortly. 

A production line provides a useful illustration of a system in a business for which there can exist limitations on physical distancing between workers. Once every reasonable effort to space workers on a production line, physical dividers can be added along that workplace system. For example, many businesses are taking advantage of plexiglass dividers to separate workers when broader physical distancing is not possible.

Other strategies recommended by the CDC include:

  • Staggering work shifts to further limit the number of employees on-site at any one time
  • Scheduling workers in solid cohorts so that they work with the same fellow employees all the time
  • Eliminate breakrooms or place definite limits on the number of people who can be in breakrooms at any time
  • Eliminate a common clock in and clock out point and use available technology for alternate clocking in and out 
  • Mandatory mask-wearing at the jobsite
  • Placement of sanitization stations that ensure easy access to hand sanitizer and sinks for handwashing

Duration of Contact

The second consideration addressed by the CDC and associated governmental agencies when it comes to worker exposure risk at manufacturing plants and fulfillment centers is the duration of contact between workers. Historically, workers in these types of settings had contact with their fellow employees that extended over the course of shifts that ran from eight to 12 hours. In some instances, contact duration was even longer when employees “did a double” or undertook two shifts in a row.

There’s only a limited amount that can be done in regard to duration of contact issues in a manufacturing or fulfillment setting. Basic recommendations at this juncture include keeping shifts to eight hours and not scheduling double shifts. 

Type of Contact

Different types of contact in a manufacturing plant or fulfillment center can expose a worker to the COVID-19 virus. These include person to person contact between workers as well as contact with different surfaces that might be contaminated with COVID-19. 

We’ve already presented CDC guidance regarding person to person interaction in a manufacturing plant or fulfillment center. There is additional guidance for protecting workers from potential COVID-19 surface contamination.

There is a recommended two-prong approach to protecting workers from virus-contaminated surfaces in a plant, center, or other business location. First, recurring cleaning and sanitization should occur throughout a shift in order to minimize the risk of surface contamination. Second, a manufacturing company or fulfillment center should schedule recurring professional deep cleaning and sanitization as well. 

Other Distinctive Risk Increasing Factors

There are a few other distinctive risk factors for workers associated with manufacturing plants and fulfillment centers. These include addressing issues related to shared transportation. Many manufacturing plants and fulfillment centers use ride-share vans, shuttles, and carpooling. In addition, a notable percentage of manufacturing and fulfillment center workers rely on public transportation. The use of these forms of shared transport do enhance the potential exposure of workers to COVID-19. 

Finally, manufacturing and fulfillment center workers tend to interact in community settings outside of work. This type of interaction also increases the risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus.