As Berkeley prepares to re-open, albeit within the restrictions required by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, local businesses may be asking themselves just how to do that safely. Kingsley Chigbu, Senior Director of Health, Safety and Environment at Bayer’s Berkeley campus, the city’s largest private-sector employer, has lots of experience in this area, and answers key questions, below.
Bayer has a 46-acre site in West Berkeley where more than 1,000 employees manufacture medicines for people with hemophilia, a rare blood disorder, and develop biotechnology products to help treat cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Because it makes potentially life-saving medicine, Bayer didn’t have the option of closing down or of having all its staff work remotely when the shelter-in-place orders went into effect. But it needed to keep all its employees as safe as possible. So, for 12 weeks, Bayer has been operating in what it calls its “Next Normal” mode. During any given 24-hour period, roughly 500 Bayer employees are working in Berkeley to continue to meet the needs of patients around the world.
What should businesses be thinking about in terms of re-entry for their employees and interacting with the community as the shelter-in-place restrictions loosen over the next few weeks?
It’s important to follow the science to ensure you understand the virus, how it spreads and how to protect your employees and customers. As a healthcare company, not only can we look internally to our experts in virology and medical affairs, but we also follow scientific information and guidelines of key agencies from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to the Berkeley Department of Public Health. Those public agency resources are available to every business in Berkeley and are very useful.
Beyond the science, it’s essential to gauge your employees’ comfort level and understand what they need to feel safe in the workplace. We’ve done this through both departmental and one-on-one check-ins with employees, and this has helped us craft our program. Communicating about safety procedures, listening and responding to questions and concerns and taking it slowly make sense. Bayer will gradually re-introduce our remote workers back to the site only when we think the time is right. We’ve been very transparent with them that this will not begin until after Labor Day.
What lessons can be learned from Bayer’s practices?
The biggest lesson for our site leadership team has been that we must be agile as this is a fluid situation — what we know about the virus and safety is constantly evolving, so our approaches need to change quickly with new information.
“We must be agile as this is a fluid situation … our approaches need to change quickly with new information.”
This is a high-stress situation for everyone. Employees – including leaders – now may also be acting as home-room teachers, caring for other family members or facing other challenges.
We need to ask our people how they are doing and what their concerns are. Empathy is essential and we must communicate often and with consistency. Dialogue empowers employees to actively assess their own safety behaviors and employee feedback informs actions we take each day.
How is Bayer monitoring the health of its employees?
Our goal is a COVID-19-free zone. That’s a tall order these days – but it informs the vigilance we bring to our safety operations. To achieve this, we conduct health screenings for everyone who enters the site – including vendors.
The screening complies with the guidelines of the CDC and includes key questions related to COVID-19 symptoms and risks, as well as a non-contact temperature check. We were the first Bayer site in the nation to deploy a screening protocol, and we receive consistent feedback from employees that it helps them to feel safe at work. Small businesses may want to look to state and local tools that may be “ready to use” to ensure that what you put in place complies with health privacy rights.
Our screening involves medical personnel from our occupational medicine team, not only on site, but also over the phone assisting employees who have questions or want to discuss suspected symptoms, exposure, etc. Employees who do not meet the requirements for gate screening have a follow-up discussion with a member of the occupational medicine team and may be placed on a 14-day precautionary quarantine. I’m pleased to report that, to date we have had no cases of COVID-19 among employees working at the Berkeley site.
What data sources or agency expertise does Bayer rely on to inform its decision making?
We monitor infection rates and the status of the curve on the national, state and local levels. We follow data from health authorities and from Johns Hopkins University and Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center. The CDC publishes data and provides important guidance and resources for all businesses. I also want to compliment both the Berkeley Fire Department, which worked with us on some early drills/simulations, and the responsiveness of the city’s Public Health Department to questions we have raised.
What are the steps to take to ensure the least risk to the health of employees?
There are four key elements to our precautionary measures:
- Cleaning and hygiene We implemented increased cleaning programs in February by tripling the number of times high-touch areas (door handles, stairwell railings, etc.) are cleaned, and we use disinfectants approved by the Environmental Protection Agency for use against the virus that causes COVID-19.
- Site entry health screening We implemented on March 14.
- Social distancing We implemented social distancing measures on March 10 and enhanced signage in alignment with a city ordinance on April 2. The City’s guidance on social distancing was helpful and we encourage everyone to take advantage of these clear instructions for helping people maintain needed physical distance.
- Cloth face coverings We started actively encouraging people wear cloth face coverings on April 4 and made it a mandatory requirement, in compliance with the Berkeley Public Health order, on April 18.
What specifically can be done to ensure social distancing?
Specific actions we’ve taken on social distancing include not only regular communication and reminders site-wide and in departmental meetings, but also physical infrastructure changes such as:
- Implemented mandatory remote working for all employees who do not need to “touch” equipment on site to do their work on March 11. The company has provided ergonomic evaluations and resources for home office set-up.
- Re-arranged break room and cafeteria seating — now tables are six feet apart and only have one chair.
- Shifted to pre-packaged meals in our cafeteria.
- Limited in-person meetings to no more than 10 people and only if six feet of social distancing can be accommodated.
- While our site is a 24/7 operation, with staggered shifts in our manufacturing operations, we created a staggered shift program for our site maintenance team to further reduce the number of people with whom they have contact.
How did you select the best PPE and what should small companies do?
Everyone on site, at a minimum, always wears a cloth face covering and we have provided these to our personnel. Given the nature of our work to develop and manufacture medicines, many of our employees already wear PPE. However, in some instances, we increased the PPEs if work requirements could not allow for enough physical distancing. For those who were not ordinarily required to wear PPE – like Security and Occupational Medicine personnel now working on our site entry screenings – we followed the guidelines of the National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health for approved PPEs and this would be a great resource for local businesses. I encourage businesses not to deplete needed resources for healthcare workers on the front line of COVID-19 care by following the NIOSH guidelines.
How do you manage the mental health of staff in these challenging times?
This is a very stressful time and we’re fortunate that Bayer has both wellness and employee assistance programs that have provided virtual webinars and help employees on a one-on-one basis to find the resources they need. Bayer also adjusted many of its human resources policies to provide employees administrative leave if on quarantine, etc., and extended many of these policies to our contingent workforce as well. Making sure you check in with your staff is important too —not just on their work, but with the questions of “How are you doing?” and “What do you need?”
What do you do if an employee becomes infected?
In the event we do have an employee diagnosed with COVID-19, we have a procedure which includes quarantine and contact tracing – in fact we do this right now with any suspected cases. Should there be a case among our employee population, we will be working with Berkeley Public Health.
What was/is a big challenge that you are facing as you are setting up these new systems? What worked to get you to your desired outcome?
None of this is easy, but our employees have stepped up every day, whether it’s getting our entry screening procedures established, increasing our cleaning activities or making sure everyone has physical separation on site. And, there’s no question that these steps have been taken – we’ve seen very good compliance with new procedures.
Probably the biggest challenge is one that has gotten very little public attention. Re-deploying a large workforce to home offices is no easy undertaking. While we have roughly 500 people coming to the site each day, we also have a large number working at home. Ensuring everyone had the right equipment to work remotely was key and then there was the big change to how they collaborate in a virtual environment which meant using new technologies and figuring out new processes. It was hard to guide people through this as our leaders were learning these technologies right alongside their teams.