As COVID-19 expanded beyond China and into North America, a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) complicated the response to the virus—and the efforts of companies to protect their employees from its spread. While many businesses suspended plant operations and responded to disrupted supply chains, a number of others stepped up and switched their production lines to make the PPE that is necessary to protect essential workers.
ASUG sat down with Dan Dubblestyne, director of health, safety, and environment at Woodbridge Foam Corporation. The Canadian company leveraged its facilities—normally used to manufacture products for the automotive industry—to produce N95 masks, all while ensuring the safety of its workers. We talked about the complications associated with this pivot, as well as how Woodbridge pulled this transition off in such a challenging time.
Jim: Tell me about Woodbridge Foam customers and products.
Dan: Woodbridge Foam is a private Canadian company. We operate 50 to 60 facilities in about 12 countries, all of which largely serve the automotive market. We also manufacture seating and interior parts for buses, motorcycles, and golf carts. Our core business is manufacturing polyurethane foam products, which we can make for any market that uses polyurethane. We primarily produce car seats, bolsters, headliners, armrests, and headrests.
Jim: What factors went into Woodbridge’s decision to transition these plants to producing PPE?
Dan: First of all, Woodbridge is run as a family business. The owners take the environments and communities in which we operate very seriously. Back when the virus started to affect North America, we had already gone through a similar situation in China, where we operate a number of manufacturing sites. In fact, we have two manufacturing sites in Hubei Province (including Wuhan), the epicenter of the Chinese outbreak. Those were both shut down during the initial outbreak, and all of our teammates in those two facilities were put into stricter quarantine than what we've experienced here. When COVID-19 started to manifest itself here—and it was clear that it was going to have a significant impact—the federal and provincial governments started asking manufacturing companies to help produce PPE gear.
We knew right away that if the virus spread the same way here as it did in China, then PPE was going to be at the forefront of the protocols that we would implement to protect our teammates. We started trying to acquire PPE early on and encountered all kinds of difficulties because there was a severe shortage. Because of that shortage, the federal and provincial governments were pleading with manufacturing companies to either donate PPE or retool some of their operations to supply frontline workers. Then the Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association, which we belong to, approached its members and encouraged them to help out. That’s right around when we became involved. At this point, we had idle production capacity. So, Woodbridge decided to pitch in and manufacture PPE to address that shortage.
Jim: What specific types of PPE gear did Woodbridge produce?
Dan: We specifically made face masks. Woodbridge has a joint venture—one of several we maintain around the world—with a Japanese company called INOAC. It had a mask design it had already used in Japan. We collaborated to make masks made from polyurethane foam. While this was in our wheelhouse, it did require some adjustments.
Jim: Speaking of those adjustments, what changes did you have to make in your plants to make this pivot work?
Dan: We found out that not any one plant could do all the work. We had to have one plant produce the foam that would be used to manufacture the masks, and then we needed another plant to cut the foam and assemble it into the final product. So, we did have to make some changes to our operations. Fortunately, we didn’t have to invest significant capital to retool because a lot of the cutting of the foam itself is on a machine called a CNC. These are programmable cutters. All we needed was a design that worked after some minor modifications—which we had with the INOAC design. Because of the outbreak, we called back several of our teammates who were idled and happy to come back to work.
Jim: Was this a difficult transition for Woodbridge? How did you overcome the hurdles associated with making these changes?
Dan: It was a somewhat difficult transition. When you are manufacturing a product that is going on your face and serves a hygienic purpose, there are standards that must be met. It was necessary for Woodbridge to engage with several federal and provincial agencies and laboratories to do testing. In order to market the product as manufactured to the N95 standard and label it as such, you have to meet certain requirements. For example, the product must be sterilized properly and to have a degree of resistance to liquid penetration. It needs the ability to filter certain sizes of particles. We had to do testing to meet these required standards before we could even start manufacturing.
The government itself opened a lot of doors for us. It was eager to help us transition and manufacture the masks, once we convinced it that we could do so. Some of those hurdles that could normally take months or years ended up not being that difficult to overcome.
Jim: Did the plant workers need extra training to make this change happen? And how did you conduct that?
Dan: There was some extra training that was required for the plant workers. This was a new product, so there were quality inspections that needed to be done. Following established training guidelines, we put together online training programs that identified how the manufacturing would be accomplished in a safe and consistent manner. We needed to ensure that our teammates were all meeting and understanding the standards. This helped us make sure we were delivering a product that met all of the requirements consistently.
Jim: How does Woodbridge protect the safety of its employees who are working during the pandemic?
Dan: That is a story within itself. Because we had facilities in Wuhan that had implemented pandemic response protocols, we learned a lot from their experience. We also did a lot of benchmarking and looked at what other companies were doing. Because of what we had gone through before with SARS and H1N1, we already had some tools at our disposal, including something called a Pandemic Response Toolbox. We also developed, distributed, and implemented a Safe Work Playbook that included the protocols around temperature and facility access screening, wearing PPE, personal hygiene, the reporting and tracking of cases, and case response and containment.
Woodbridge also had an executive-level pandemic response team that was meeting daily. We essentially implemented the playbook in a very controlled manner and made sure that all of our plants were up to speed through daily communication. We underwent a lot of engineering changes. For example, some jobs required people to work shoulder-to-shoulder. So, where we could, we installed physical barriers. We adopted many other measures, too. We’re very happy with the output because among about 7,500 teammates globally, we had fewer cases reported than expected.
Jim: When did you start this transition, and when did you convert back to normal production?
Dan: We’re still not back to full, normal production. All our plants are back up and running, with some at a reduced capacity. Most of our manufacturing facilities started back up in late April or early May. But the production volumes are off.
Not all our customers are back to running at 100%. They’ve been affected across the entire supply chain on a scale nobody has ever experienced before. We’re not quite sure when we’re going to get back to normal, but we’re starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel. I should mention that it's likely most of the protocols we have in place are going to carry over well into 2021.
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