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COVID-19 Case Study: COVID-19 Response Enhances Security’s Image and Standing

Organization: A Europe-based polymer manufacturer with global operations.

Key issues:
• Maintaining production of essential polymers
• Maintaining staff health and identifying infected workers
• Maintaining sufficient staff levels

17 June Update

At most sites of an international polymer manufacturer, office and administrative staff have been working from home since mid-March 2020. (The exceptions are some sites that have already opened in Asia as well as research facilities collocated at administrative sites that remained open with rigorous safety protocols.) Now corporate leadership has created a timeline for reopening and has provided guidelines for its country managers. The guidance instructs country managers to assess the local virus condition and prevalence, understand and conform with applicable regulations, and ensure site readiness. Headquarters will orchestrate some pilot openings of certain facilities in August 2020, and by 1 September 2020 it is expected that all offices will have at least started the gradual reopening process.

Plant workers and administrative staff will be subject to temperature checks, but implementation of this plan has proved tricky in some European countries. Each member of the European Union has a data protection authority that oversees the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and handles complaints about violations. The company’s CSO says that data protection authorities are taking the position that temperature screening could violate the GDPR. But they each have their own unique rules and regulations, which makes compliance across the continent onerous.

Depending on the country, some authorities discourage any temperature taking and/or allow the process with only simple thermometers (as opposed to thermal cameras or other high-tech equipment), while generally prohibiting an employer from processing or storing that data. The Dutch authority, for example, has banned any type of temperature-taking, even with a basic thermometer, and has threatened fines for violators. The CSO explains that the manufacturer will not collect or store the data, and will only use the reading to determine whether a person should enter a facility at that time, but security will have to navigate the patchwork of regulations.

The company requires staff to create and maintain a log of everyone with whom they have come in close contact, as well as the circumstances of that contact, such as what was happening and who was wearing a mask. Generally, if people are within 1.5 meters for longer than 15 minutes, it merits an entry into the log. Management recommends that staff use the log in their private lives. Logs are kept private until an ill worker requires contact tracing to determine what other people could have been infected.

Anyone who feels sick, displays symptoms, or even returns from an event or vacation where they came in close contact with people, is encouraged to see a company physician. The organization keeps 14 doctors on staff, which incentivizes workers to seek medical attention, the CSO says. “The doctors are well-versed in COVID-19 and can provide guidance,” according to the CSO.

Confirmed cases remain low, ebbing to 5 but up to 14 as of mid-June 2020. The company assumes that another 105 are infected, so those people are quarantined as well. The CSO expects periodic flare-ups of COVID-19, especially after summer vacation. “In society, people have not kept up their behavioral adjustment,” says the CSO. While people were at first vigilant about applying sanitizer and using shopping carts to maintain social distancing in stores, even when shopping for a single item, those precautions are breaking down.

With the pandemic already in its sixth month, the company has adjusted its production activities to adapt to the current circumstances. As previously noted (see earlier updates below), plants have curtailed automotive and oil and gas activities and ramped up healthcare-related production. The CSO says that company is adapting by developing new products for new markets. For example, it is looking at manufacturing plastic separation panels and new industrial disinfectants.

Twenty percent of staff have been furloughed, as noted in the previous installment. It has taken more than a month to meet the regulatory requirements for furloughs, says the CSO, because many European countries have strong pro-worker laws and regulations.

During the pandemic, security’s role at the manufacturer has changed—for the better. “For crisis management, before I was a stakeholder when it came to security incidents,” the CSO says. But the pandemic has brought the CSO heightened visibility with the company’s leadership. “We’ve brought them structure, options, pragmatism, and fact-based decision making,” the CSO continues. “We’ve established ourselves as a formidable business partner more than before. We provide a concrete return—avoiding people getting infected, creating positivity in the workforce, enabling our factories to operate. It’s allowed the security team to play a role as a leader and be seen as such.”

11 May Update

As of April 2020, the company had begun strategizing to return administrative staff to the office, though a return to work is unlikely to occur until the end of the third quarter. The crisis management team has developed a strategy for the reintegration, which has been approved by the executive committee.

The strategy includes a playbook that requires regional facilities and offices to conform to several principles before they can reopen. The playbook is descriptive, not prescriptive, considering variations in local and regional laws and regulations, as well as differences in regional and departmental business practices and operations.

One overarching principle to prepare for return, for example, is social distancing. Minimum distances required between individuals vary depending on the jurisdiction—a site in one country may be have to maintain six feet (about 2 meters), while one across the border might be obliged to maintain only three feet (about 1 meter). If those distances are impossible to sustain with a full on-site staff, the facility can exercise alternatives such as staggering shifts, installing separators or splash screens, or rearranging workspaces.

The company’s plants continue to operate, all of them in conformance with the principles in the playbook, but a few that service troubled industries have slowed production or shut down entirely. Specifically, production serving the automotive, aviation, and oil and gas sectors has been cut, though manufacturing operations for the healthcare sector are robust and growing due to increased demand.

The pandemic-induced recession has caused the company to furlough about 20 percent of its staff, including both administrative workers and factory personnel. Furlough protocols follow local regulations, but the company is guaranteeing staff that they will only lose a certain percentage of their salary. In addition, the staff members retain healthcare coverage and other key benefits.

Since early April 2020, one additional plant had to be closed for a few days, cleaned, and disinfected after one worker contracted COVID-19. That person is recovering. Because of enhanced cleaning protocols, the company hasn’t had to close a facility in recent weeks; if a single factory worker gets sick, the whole plant is unlikely to be shut down, the CSO says. In part that is because the likelihood of transmission via surfaces in production facilities is low, especially given the rigorous cleaning schedule.

As of early May 2020, 17 staff members have active cases of COVID-19 or have recovered from the virus. The CSO says that the company has isolated another 350 staff that are considered likely to be infected but haven’t been tested. These determinations were made through response protocols that include infection investigation, contact tracing, physician and manager assessments and consultations, and, when necessary, reviews by government officials. Though up significantly from the initial report, the curve of infected staff seems to have flattened and started to decline.

Temperature checking at plant entrances has gone smoothly, using a digital laser infrared “thermometer gun,” with a few workers having been sent home for having elevated temperatures. The corporation is currently exploring options for testing employees—either with polymerase chain reaction tests that detect current infection, or with serological tests that look for antibodies indicating that the person has had the virus and developed an immune response. Some of the considerations the company is navigating are legal regulations, test availability, reliability, and cost. The key issue that the executive committee has to determine, however, is who they are looking to identify—currently ill individuals or those who have previously been infected and have recovered. 

April 2020 Update

A Europe-based polymer company with hundreds of facilities around the world has taken a glocal approach when responding to the coronavirus pandemic, says the global CSO. Country security managers have established their own crisis management teams, so they can pull information from local plant and site managers. These local teams are at the front line of the crisis. They report up to and receive guidance from the corporate crisis management team (CMT). The corporate crisis management team, in turn, reports to the executive committee.

Local teams provide a daily report to the corporate CMT, which provides site guidance and helps local leaders implement requirements, including human resource requirements. Country-level site guidance was an initial priority because there was inconsistency between countries and even facilities within countries in assigning alert levels. The corporate CMT stepped in to distribute guidelines to local teams on deployment of staff, site controls, response protocols, and safety and security measures.

The corporate CMT assembled in mid-January 2020, focusing on a few thousand employees working or traveling in China. The CMT would meet two or three times per week monitoring the situation and protecting staff—none of whom got infected.

The CMT assembled a team of 18 doctors and healthcare professionals to create protocols for proper safety and hygiene for staff.

As the virus began to spread, the corporate CMT turned its attention to global travel and preparation of local security managers.

As of early April 2020, the company has had few confirmed infections. But the CSO has estimated that about 35 times that number—about 200 employees in all—are likely to have been infected as suggested by relevant symptoms or proven contact with an infected person. Those staff have been quarantined at home.

All nonessential personnel were required to work at home as of early March. But as a critical infrastructure organization that makes products for the healthcare industry, the company has continued manufacturing operations. So far, staffing levels have been sufficient to keep plants running, the CSO says. One plant—a batch production site—was shut down by local authorities over a weekend due to an infection. But because the plant didn’t typically operate on weekends, the company didn’t lose any production.

Since mid-March, medical staff have been conducting temperature checks at the entrances of most facilities to identify anyone with a fever. Two approaches are used: either everybody who enters a facility gets tested or staff are trusted to take their temperature at home and stay at home if they have a fever. Visitors and contractors receive temperature checks at the door.

At each facility, social distancing is rigorously implemented, and sanitizer stations are abundant, though plant managers strongly encourage staff to wash with soap and water. Processes are in place to re-integrate staff after they have been quarantined.

Staff with significant human contact receive N95 masks for protection. The CSO says the company has six months of inventory. Recipients of masks include security officers, receptionists, and the medical staff taking temperatures at the entrances.

Fear of contracting COVID-19 has led to some absenteeism, but “not to critical levels.”


Michael Gips, JD, CPP, CSyP, CAE, is the principal of Global Insights in Professional Security, LLC, a firm that helps security providers and executives develop cutting-edge content, assert thought leadership, and heighten brand awareness. Gips was previously Chief Global Knowledge Officer at ASIS International, with responsibility for Editorial Services, Learning, Certification, Standards & Guidelines, and the CSO Center for Leadership & Development. Before that, as an editor for ASIS’s Security Management magazine, he wrote close to 1,000 articles and columns on virtually every topic in security. In his early career he was an attorney who worked on death-penalty cases.

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