When workers get to the Cambria factories in Le Sueur and Belle Plaine, they are guided along black drapes and theater stanchions through an overhead thermal body scanner checking for elevated temperatures, a possible sign of COVID-19.
CEO Marty Davis was the first to walk through the temperature station when the first shift of workers shuffled through the doors in Le Sueur at dawn at the end of last month.
“We have gotten feedback that the employees appreciate it. We are trying to bring forth a much more conscientious and collaborative safety and health narrative,” Davis said.
Nearby, two health workers stood ready with additional touchless forehead thermometers and finger oxygenators — two tools commonly used by doctors to detect the fevers or oxygen deprivation associated with the potentially deadly coronavirus.
Last week, a thermal system was installed at Cambria’s now-closed Eden Prairie office to be ready when those doors open.
The cost was about $250,000, but well worth it for Cambria and other companies who want to reopen factories in a way that will keep employees safe and sickness off the line.
The new temperature scanners are here to stay and just one of several steps the quartz-countertop maker is taking to operate plants safely amid the pandemic when epidemiologists and scientists are still trying to figure out how to effectively treat it and develop a vaccine.
Other plants also have put into place aggressive action plans as they reopen or continue to operate as essential businesses. Screening and socially distancing workers, mask policies and cleaning protocols are all part of daily procedures for companies such as Boston Scientific, Ecolab, Honeywell and Polaris.
When the coronavirus stay-home orders slammed sales, Polaris shut its plants for a week in March.
At that time, the Medina-based outdoor vehicle maker deep-cleaned its factories and hired an epidemiologist to help develop its COVID-19 response, said Ken Pucel, executive vice president of global operations, engineering and lean manufacturing.
The company scrapped plans to test all workers for the virus. Test kits were too hard to get, he said. Instead, Polaris spent more than $200,000 on masks, redesigning factory floors and removing lunchroom tables for safer spacing. Weeks ago it spent another “couple hundred thousand” installing thermal-imaging cameras and touchless thermometers at its Roseau, Monticello and Osceola, Wis., factories. They will be installed at other locations, too.
“I am putting it everywhere. This is how we get back to normal,” Pucel said.
The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce issued guidelines last week to help businesses return to work safely while the coronavirus continues to infect thousands nationwide.
Besides wellness checks, it suggests a master schedule for all employees so they know who they are in contact with and for contact tracing. Also, companies should have a response plan for if employees become ill.
“Whether they have remained open throughout the COVID-19 outbreak or are preparing to open again, businesses throughout Minnesota are adjusting their practices and workspaces to mitigate health risks and boost consumer confidence,” said Vicki Stute, the Chamber’s vice president of business services.
At Cambria, Davis and operations manager Brian Scoggin also separated production lines on the factory floor and asked 650 workers in Minnesota to sign a pledge promising to stay home if they feel sick. They sent office employees home weeks ago.
Cambria had one worker in Dallas who tested positive for COVID-19.
Honeywell in Minneapolis, Daikin Applied Americas in Owatonna, and window-replacement firm Renewal By Andersen in Cottage Grove each had a few sick workers, prompting each to close factories or production lines for cleaning.
So far in Minnesota, the worst outbreaks have been in meatpacking plants, including the JBS pork-processing facility in Worthington. In North Dakota, though, one of the hot spots was an LM Wind Power turbine plant in Grand Forks.
Doug Baker, CEO of the St. Paul-based cleaning-chemicals firm Ecolab, told shareholders over a week ago that 50 Ecolab workers worldwide had contracted COVID-19, including a Dubai employee who died from it.
“It’s a terrible tragedy,” he said. “We work very hard to make sure that number doesn’t go up.”
Honeywell requires employees to wear masks and it distanced active machines or installed plastic sheeting between workstations.
The Teamsters, AFL-CIO and the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters said they each are reaching out to employers, including in Minnesota, to establish worker-safety guidelines with regard to reopenings. The AFL-CIO is pushing for more protective gear, more testing, better contact tracing and greater employee say in policies regarding work conditions during the pandemic.
Drake Kilber, a process engineer on Cambria’s slab-polishing line in Le Sueur, said his father-in-law is a Minnetonka police officer working the streets, with no way to know if he has been exposed to the virus.
“So I don’t take [the temperature check] for granted,” he said. “I am very appreciative of it. It does mean a lot to us to have an employer who is willing to invest in us, their employees.”
Cambria furloughed 400 workers and is running factories at 40% capacity. With the virus, “demand is falling off for everyone,” said Davis, who is slowly bringing back workers as orders grow.
He doesn’t expect business to fully return to pre-COVID-19 levels until people feel safe and bars, restaurants and the rest of society fully reopen with smart precautions. Until then, he’s creating his own “new normal.”
Cambria will keep its showrooms shut for now and do design consultations online.