Why workers lived in a factory for nearly a month to help out in the coronavirus crisis

A group of factory employees recently gave the term “essential worker” an entirely new meaning.

As the coronavirus pandemic badly impacted the ability to obtain needed medical supplies across the country, workers at two Braskem America plants volunteered to live on-site for 28 consecutive days to ramp up production of a critical material used to make personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline healthcare workers combating the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Braskem America is the largest producer of polypropylene (PP) in the Americas. And more than 80 workers between two plants in West Virginia and Pennsylvania volunteered for the production plant “live-ins” to produce this polymer used in medical gowns, disinfectant wipes, and face masks. 

In an interview, CEO Mark Nikolich told Yahoo Finance that the company’s first priority was to protect all those involved. “In other words, secure the health and safety of the team members and their families and their loved ones that they’re going home to every night,” he added.

Once that was assured, the second mission involved continuing “to support the supply chain that leads to this protective equipment that can help us combat COVID-19,” he added.

The teams worked in rotating 12-hour shifts to keep production running to meet the surging demand, while remaining isolated on-site. The plants already include kitchens and locker rooms, so the company provided air mattresses, groceries, prepared food deliveries, iPads, and increased high-speed internet access for Zoom calls with family and friends. For downtime, the team also had a Microsoft Xbox at their disposal.

What’s more, Braskem paid employees for both the 12-hour shift on and off while they’re on-site.

In fact, at the West Virginia plant, the company had more volunteers than it had the capacity for live-in space. Those who made the live-in crew at that plant felt it was important to pay the team members who volunteered, but couldn’t participate. Braskem is paying them the equivalent of a 40-hour workweek to provide economic support during the crisis. 

‘We had to bring this to an end at some point’

The Braskem team at the Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania plant that participated in a 28-day live in to produce polypropylene, a material used in personal protective equipment. (photo courtesy of Braskem)

Since the COVID-19 crisis began, Braskem has seen an “extreme increase” in demand of about 40% for polypropylene. It made the company quickly shift production efforts to focus on the medical and hygiene area, something Nikolich warned has its limits before “fatigue” sets among front line workers.

“We’re running a hydrocarbon process, so process safety and safety of the individuals, in addition to COVID, is extremely important,” he said.

“And so we had to bring this to an end at a certain point. But what it allowed us to do was secure the team and the supply chain for a period of time,” Nikolich added. 

One of the rotating 12-hour shift crews at the Braskem America plant in Neal, West Virginia that participated in a 28-day live-in to produce polypropylene, a material used in personal protective equipment. (photo courtesy of Braskem America)

The 46 employees at the Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania production plant concluded their 28-day live-in, and have transitioned to a seven-day on, seven-day off shift. Meanwhile, the Neal, West Virginia plant will complete their 28-day live-in on Tuesday. 

The added level of compensation aside, Nikolich added that employees got something even more valuable.

“I think what’s most important is they volunteered, and their commitment and dedication, not just to the asset, but to helping solve the portion of the crisis that we can help solve, I think was the real driver,” he said. 

Julia La Roche is a Correspondent at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter

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