During the covid-19 pandemic, it is even more important that we connect, share information and help each other meet the unique challenges faced by our industry. The Senior BioPhorum Connect group – consisting of the leaders and sponsors from the BioPhorum communities – has been meeting online since April to discuss and adapt their responses to the pandemic.
To assess the measures taken across the industry, BioPhorum recently ran a covid-19 Workforce Protection Survey of the group. This identified gaps and best practices, to help to refine and guide the industry approach, and enable the alignment and adoption of best practices.
The results of the survey reflect a point in time during a fast-moving situation. It may be repeated later in the year to understand how members’ covid-19 responses to workforce protection have changed and to look at some areas in more depth.
The Workforce Protection Survey questions were grouped into five areas and the main responses are discussed below.
Personnel protection and safe working
For all organizations, workforce protection policies are multi-layered to account for corporate, national and local requirements (with considerable flexibility needed to accommodate differences across multiple government levels).
The survey showed that more than 80% of companies have conducted a structured risk assessment, often done within a business continuity or other response framework.
To ensure social distancing, most businesses have implemented a range of physical and temporal controls, such as 2m distances between desks, one-way systems for people flows and physical barriers (e.g. screens).
Unsurprisingly, as many knowledge workers are working from home, the majority of organizations (86%) have very low levels of building occupancy, often between 25-50% of pre-covid-19 levels.
Companies also said that special arrangements, beyond the use of PPE, are being widely adopted where social distancing is not possible, such as redesigning manufacturing setup layouts and reducing the number of people in close contact with each other.
The most commonly provided PPE are hand gel, masks/visors and gloves and early concerns about supply have eased, with 97% of businesses being able to increase their PPE inventories. Nearly all told us that cleaning routines in facilities and offices have intensified with an additional focus on high-traffic areas.
Vulnerable staff (e.g. immunosuppressed) are working from home in the majority of organizations (91%), and a similar proportion is also providing safe-working training, such as video training on mask use. Many additional safeguards are being considered, including location logging, contact tracing and tighter access control to buildings.
Companies also said they are enhancing their psychological support for their workforce, such as regular calls with supervisors and offering a psychological hotline. Many have developed plans to ‘cocoon’ critical employees for a defined period on-site to reduce their social contacts and risk of infection.
Remote working/working from home
Beyond the usual web-meeting applications (e.g. Zoom and Teams), most businesses do not use remote-working technologies. However, remote working is encouraging innovation in business practices, such as using augmented reality glasses and electronic signatures.
Recognizing the increased risk of cyber attacks with remote working, IT groups are enhancing security and user awareness through actions such as extra training and using cloud technologies and data encryption. Audits, inspections and other physical interactions are widely being replaced by virtual exchanges, but it is unclear to what extent this will continue in the long term and may be seen as short term expediency.
It is expected that the new ‘normal’ will include working from home 1–2 days per week, and some organizations might even consider formally splitting office/home time to reduce their business occupancy need to 50%.
While remote access of shop-floor data is largely in place already, virtual management routines (including Kaizen, GEMBA and safety visits) are emerging from the need to minimize the number of people in facilities. Slightly under half of companies plan to accelerate their plans for digitization in their cGMP facilities, such as using video streaming.
Workplace design for people protection
Most businesses (85%) have no plans to eliminate touch screens, instead preferring to increase the sanitization of surfaces. Just over half of companies said had eliminated indirect personnel (e.g. supervision and management) from the manufacturing space.
Face-to-face training has been replaced by virtual training in the majority organizations, for the time being at least, but for many the longer-term position appears to be undecided, particularly for GMP-related training.
Nearly all companies have initiated low-density working environments to 50% or less of pre-covid-19 levels, while over half are planning to redesign their offices and working spaces to allow social distancing (e.g. eliminating open-plan offices, reducing hot-desking and adding more screens between people). Slightly over half of businesses told us that they had initiated plans to minimize physical touchpoints, such as door handles, by using automated openers or even eliminating some doors completely.
Staggered work start/finish times is a very common action to limit the close contact of staff, and the majority of organizations have implemented self-contained teams where possible (e.g. with no cross-team working or swapping team members). Around half of companies have taken special measures to help staff safely travel to and from work, such as requiring them not to use mass transport methods.
A very high proportion of businesses have made new arrangements for supplying food and drink to their workforce, such as offering take-out food and protective screens for cashiers, while removing self-serve items. For the vast majority of organizations (94%), workplace design for workforce protection applies to all types of facilities, not just manufacturing locations.
Testing and tracking infection risk
Most companies said they support PCR testing for workers with covid-19 symptoms – but mainly through physicians and local healthcare providers rather than being provided on-site. Also, the majority do not do serological (antibody) testing for workers displaying symptoms of covid-19, while only one company told us it did serological testing for workers not displaying symptoms.
Checking the temperature of employees and visitors before site entry is typical for most businesses. Temperature self-testing by employees or visitors is the usual method, but EHS staff, company nurses and third party contractors are also often used. However, in many cases, private areas are not provided to conduct temperature testing.
All organizations are measuring and reporting infection cases, although most (71%) are not measuring past exposed cases to determine the levels of potential immunity.
Plans to track people to trace their contacts in the case of infection do not exist in most companies, although nearly all have a clear process to follow-up suspected covid-19 cases. Many also only allow direct workers and contractors who support production to be on site.
Return to work
For most businesses, people are allowed to return to work (RTW) if they have no symptoms, no fever and a normal temperature. The 14-day isolation is commonly required if covid-19 symptoms appear, if a test is positive or if a close contact has had the virus.
A step-wise approach to RTW with two or three defined phases is common for the majority of organizations, but some will lag behind local RTW guidelines until they understand the risk and impact. Most companies have defined ‘return to lockdown’ criteria but will be led by a country’s government requirements, particularly of infection rates start to increase.
International travel restrictions still exist at the majority of businesses (90%) and many have defined ‘essential travel’ criteria. All organizations see quarantine periods as preventing international business travel, although most have not yet issued safety (e.g. PPE) guidance for when travel returns.
Recognizing the importance of providing information to staff, most companies have increased the frequency and format of workplace communications, and learning points are emerging as RTW starts; for example, that WFH can be productive and that slow, cautious steps are essential.
The speed with which covid-19 has impacted the biopharmaceutical industry has required an almost unprecedented response from organizations. But respond it has.
The BioPhorum Workforce Protection Survey shows that – despite fast-changing corporate, local/regional/national government requirements – companies have reacted quickly to keep their workers safe while trying to minimize the impact on day-to-day operations. Existing business continuity or other response frameworks have been crucial to formulating a speedy, coordinated and measured response.
Physical and temporal controls to ensure social distancing are extensive and include everything from screens/barriers to one-way systems. Most companies have adopted special arrangements (e.g. PPE) where social distancing is not possible, and cleaning routines have intensified with a focus on high-traffic areas.
Companies recognize the need for additional safeguards, and location logging and contact tracing mechanisms are being used by some companies. They also appreciate the criticality of some staff and segregating teams is widely used to reduce infection risk.
As expected, there is a lot of focus on testing, tracking and reporting infection risk. While most organizations support PCR testing for workers, this is mainly through physicians and local healthcare providers. Most companies do not do serological or antibody testing, often because of concerns about the unreliability of tests. Temperature self-testing by the employee or visitor is common, although in most cases private areas are not provided for this.
How companies operate is also being affected by the pandemic. Remote access to shop floor data has increased in importance, while the need to minimize people in the facilities has meant that virtual management routines (e.g. Kaizen) have emerged. Companies also accept that work areas may need to change and redesigning office/workspaces – not just manufacturing locations – is now happening, as is staggered start/finish times to minimize staff contact.
Working from home has been a seismic shift for many businesses and the use of web-meeting applications is now standard. Yet some organizations are taking the opportunity to innovate their business practices and even accelerate their plans for digitization in cGMP facilities. Homeworking has required an extra focus on IT security, which may be needed in the longer-term as there is an expectation that an element of working from will become the norm.