When working from home wasn't an option: How employers try to make working from work safer

Mike Feibus, Special to USA TODAY
·5 min read

Algood Foods Company is an essential employer. And if you’ve been working and parenting under the same roof for even some of the past seven months, then you’d no doubt agree.

See, Algood makes peanut butter and jelly. It produces the sandwich staples for grocery chains, which sell them in stores under their own brands. Essential, to be sure: When the pandemic hit, U.S. demand for peanut butter mushroomed 75%. And the Louisville, Kentucky, company’s factories were ready to roll.

But when it came to a recipe for keeping its 350 workers healthy, company executives had to start from scratch. Algood had no technology to leverage for its COVID-19 response. And because many line workers don’t bother with email, the company didn’t even have a reliable way to alert them to procedural changes, or for workers to report symptoms and test results.

“We were using our bulletin boards and a phone tree. And we quickly realized that was just too antiquated,” said Kelly Zeilman, Algood’s vice president of human resources.

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Many companies were in the same boat.

Popular cloud-based work-from-home tools like Zoom, which helped keep professionals safe and productive at home, don’t extend well to the front line. So they‘ve turned to technologies designed to limit exposure to the virus, like virtual health checks and social distancing aids. High-touch communications, many find, play an outsized role in their success.

Toward that end, Algood deployed a smartphone app called Redeapp to connect management and workers. This summer, the company added an electronic form that workers fill out each morning. Even if a worker feels healthy, the app might send them home or for tests if they’ve been in contact with someone with symptoms.

Amazon associate receiving a protective face mask in Kent, Wash. facility.
Amazon associate receiving a protective face mask in Kent, Wash. facility.

A different scale

When it comes to protecting folks who work from work, even high-tech companies’ first order of business was the low-tech quest to secure personal protective equipment, or PPE. Of course, you can’t just head over to Amazon.com to find millions of masks and thousands of thermometers. Even if you are Amazon.

Like many companies, Amazon had a difficult time finding – and vetting – masks, thermometers and hand sanitizers. “We spent a lot of time testing those products,” said Cathy Hovde, principal industrial hygienist at Amazon. “We needed them for our associates. But we didn’t lower our bar on safety because we were having supply chain issues like everyone else.”

Amazon health and safety officials said they did manage to quickly secure enough PPE for workers. For a time, the company said it even tested – and ultimately purchased – hand sanitizer from distilleries, which had pivoted last spring to produce PPE. All told, the giant e-tailer said it purchased 151 million masks, 30,000 handheld thermometers – even enough plexiglass to build about 5,000 stands to protect folks doing temperature checks.

From there, Amazon said it started its higher-tech response by leveraging existing equipment. Jane Bourke, Global Leader, Health and Safety Technical Solutions at Amazon, told me that one team, for example, developed an algorithm to repurpose security cameras to gauge how well sites were adhering to social distancing protocols. Today, that algorithm also powers Amazon’s “Distance Assistant,” a mobile workstation that reminds workers in high-traffic areas to maintain space.

Early this month, Amazon announced that in just over six months, the company had 19,816 positive or presumed positive cases of COVID-19. While that sounds like a lot, it represents only 1.44% of the 1.372 million front-line workers Amazon employed over the time span – less than the national average.

Going forward, Amazon is focused on shoring up its COVID-19 test capabilities to help better identify and isolate infections. The company soon plans to perform 50,000 tests a day across 650 sites.

Contact tracing

At Ford Motor Company, the few workers on the job last spring weren’t just using PPE. They were also making it.

Ford had stopped making vehicles, though it signed on to make items like respirators, medical gowns and face masks. And to help keep workers safe, Mark Goderis, Ford’s Digital Engineering Manager, set out to help workers maintain proper social distance and to generate contact tracing reports when someone came down with COVID-19.

To do that, Goderis’ team switched gears on a project that was using Bluetooth to locate bins inside Ford’s massive plants. The team customized Samsung’s Galaxy Watch Active2 smartwatches, using Bluetooth to help gauge how far devices – and, by proxy, workers – were from one another, and Wi-Fi to send the data to the cloud.

“Rather than asking ‘Who have you been in contact with?’ and have you go back in your memory, I can have the answer in five or 10 minutes,” Goderis said.

The union’s shop chairperson “was very excited for the technology,” he said. “There was a global pandemic and all of our manufacturing facilities were closed. Michigan was a hot spot. So they wanted the people making those medical devices to know that they were safe when they came into work.”

That’s something everyone hopes one day to take for granted again. As everyday as, well, peanut butter and jelly for lunch.

USA TODAY columnist Mike Feibus is president and principal analyst of FeibusTech, a Scottsdale, Arizona, market research and consulting firm. Reach him at mikef@feibustech.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeFeibus.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Covid at work: How employers used tech to keep workers safer on job