COVID-19 Crisis Heightens Risks to Chemical Supply Chains, Business Continuity
Pandemic Product Stewardship
By Jan. 30, when the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, to be a global health emergency, much of Hubei Province, where Wuhan is located, was already under government-ordered quarantine. Over the next few weeks, similar measures were imposed across a wide swath of mainland China. As concern rose about the coronavirus’ impact on human health—at the time, China had reported approximately 10,000 confirmed cases and 200 deaths—it was also clear that the spread of disease, and the lockdown measures necessary to control it, would have potentially drastic effects on many companies’ supply chains, particularly in the chemical industry, which has historically been dependent upon China, according to the professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. In a survey conducted April 22 through May 19 by the American Chemistry Council, nearly three-quarters of surveyed companies indicated that the pandemic had resulted in lost sales in the United  States. Nearly 60 percent said they had experienced transportation or distribution challenges, and more than half said their supply chains had been disrupted. As the virus spread around the world, the crisis brought supply chain issues into sharp relief. Since at least the turn of the century, increasing globalization had raised concerns that supply chains had become so lean and efficient that they were vulnerable to disruptions. Companies implemented a range of protective measures that had consequences for the transport and delivery of goods and supplies, highlighting the need for organizations to revisit their risk management practices and business continuity plans—areas that typically fall within the responsibilities of product stewardship professionals. ATTAINING RESILIENCE In 2003, soon after the SARS epidemic, the Cranfield University School of Management released the report “Creating Resilient Supply Chains: A Practical Guide.” The report discussed trends that many observers considered to be contributors to supply chain vulnerabilities, including rapid growth of global sourcing and offshoring, reduction of the supplier base, consolidation of industry, and the centralization of distribution facilities. In the right circumstances, these features allowed supply chains to function efficiently, but they were also fragile: a problem at one supplier could break the chain and cause serious issues both upstream and downstream. To manage risks, the idea of supply chain “resilience” has gained currency. Resilience, or the ability of a system to return to its desired state after a disturbance, is a topic of great interest at the Oxfordshire-based National Chemical Emergency Centre. NCEC originated as a governmental agency to provide emergency services whenever there was a chemical incident in the United Kingdom. Privatized along with similar agencies in the 1980s, NCEC is now part of Ricardo, a global automotive engineering and sustainability company. Today, NCEC’s business is international: its 600 clients include about half of the world’s top 100 chemical manufacturers throughout the chemical supply chain. In August, Craig Thomson, NCEC’s associate director of business development, presented a webinar through the Product Stewardship Society on chemical supply chains. The webinar occurred too late for this issue of The Synergist, but among the topics Thomson planned to discuss was supply chain resilience, he said in a video chat this summer. For Thomson, supply chain resilience is “the ability for an organization to understand the risks that face them within the supply chain to the extent that they can then make the right and sensible decisions about what mitigation activities they should put in place.” “That’s not necessarily to say that you must mitigate all these risks,” Thomson says. “It would be great if organizations had billions of dollars to spend on risk mitigation, but it’s about making the sensible decisions about what’s the most impactful risk and then making the investments in the right area.” Thomson agrees with the view that years of emphasis on efficiency have left supply chains vulnerable to disruptions. In normal times, the most disruptive events NCEC addresses are transportation issues: roadway collisions, overturned tankers, derailed trains. While these events are rare, other types of transportation issues are relatively common, often involving loading and offloading. Chemical releases caused by unsecured drums rolling around in a truck or forklifts puncturing barrels are the kinds of things that most often prompt calls to NCEC’s emergency hotline. Thomson explains how the novel coronavirus’s spread around the world has raised the stakes for these incidents and affected companies’ ability to address them. “The new problem the pandemic has introduced is the availability of people to help in many ways,” he says. A significant incident may cause a company to activate its business continuity or crisis management plans, but these plans might not account for reduced staffing brought about by the pandemic. “When organizations are looking at staffing levels, they’re not considering necessarily what these people are doing with a view of the wider emergency response chain,” Thomson says. Employee layoffs often lead to delayed communication about incidents. “[Communication is] still happening, but it’s slower, disjointed. More time [is spent] trying to find the right people, because people are being furloughed . . . and organizations aren’t necessarily thinking through that link, how that all ties together, and therefore putting the right alternative arrangements in place.” Because protecting the health and safety of workers is among a business’s most pressing concerns during the pandemic, Thomson cautions against losing sight of the big picture. “The fact that we’re in the middle of a crisis doesn’t mean that any of your other risks go away,” he says. “If you’ve got spill response teams in your warehouses, are they still operating? Do you still have 24 hours of operation covered from that level of capacity? And then when it goes down into the supply chain, what are you actually doing from an emergency response perspective? If you’re using a provider, what are their mitigation steps? How are they managing the crisis? And if you have less staff in house who can help during an incident, are you using the right provider that can actually provide the right level of support so you don’t need to get involved?”
“The fact that we’re in the middle of a crisis doesn’t mean that any of your other risks go away.”
CONTINUITY PLANS For many companies, the SARS epidemic brought home the need to reconsider business continuity in the event of a highly transmissible infectious disease. In its report “Learning from SARS: Preparing for the Next Disease Outbreak,” the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine noted that companies rarely priced potential disruptions from viruses into their business costs and contingency plans. NAS also predicted that business continuity planning would change in the wake of SARS. “Whereas previous business continuity plans focused on data protection and recovery, businesses probably will begin to consider plans that involve protection of human resources, backup teams, and alternate locations for operation,” the report stated. At the time of SARS, then-AIHA President Tom Grumbles was manager of product safety and occupational health for Sasol North America, an international chemicals and energy company. Grumbles would later become president of the Product Stewardship Society. He remembers the effects of SARS on planning at the corporate level as significant.  “Business continuity plans really changed in character in terms of figuring, okay, if we have to send everybody home, how are we going to run our business?” Grumbles says. Now retired, Grumbles participates in AIHA’s Re-Opening America Task Force, helping draft guidelines for businesses to protect employees and the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the guidelines Grumbles worked on addressed small manufacturing and maintenance shops, which experience many of the same challenges as suppliers and therefore illuminate some of the issues that product stewardship programs must address during the current crisis. “Some of the issues are, how are you going to control what comes into your workplace from your suppliers in terms of pathogen spread?” Grumbles says. Businesses that are storing containers from suppliers will face questions from their customers about how those products are being decontaminated. Shipments may need to be placed in quarantine for a few days, which affects delivery schedules. In a global economy built largely on just-in-time delivery, a few days’ delay can cause complications. “If we have to put it in the warehouse for three days before we can send it, how are we going to build that into our supply chains?” Grumbles says.  Something as simple as setting requirements for personal protective equipment could potentially disrupt deliveries if the requirements haven’t been effectively communicated throughout the supply chain. “One of the worst things that can happen is you have to start turning trucks away because they can’t meet your requirements for your workplace that you hadn’t notified them of,” Grumbles says. “So there are a lot of considerations for products coming in and products going out, and anywhere those pieces are breaking your chain, so to speak, can have a trickle-down impact.

“Not to mention suppliers going out of business or being in areas where they aren’t allowed to operate for some degree of time. What alternate supplier do you have lined up before that happens?” MULTIPLE SUPPLIERS As director of global product stewardship and regulatory affairs for Eastman Chemical Company, John Hott is helping manage risks to supply chains and business continuity during the pandemic. While the coronavirus spread around the world, the company’s first priority was the health and safety of its employees. Next in importance was ensuring the company protected its essential operating areas that produce products critical to responding to the pandemic, Hott says: “After ensuring [our employees and their families’] safety, we wanted to ensure the sustainability of our manufacturing sites. This included changing the work location of some employees who are not directly involved in manufacturing so as to lessen the risk of exposure to those who must work within our essential production areas. Our response was further complicated by a patchwork of pandemic responses within the United States and other jurisdictions in which we do business.” A silver lining of the pandemic, according to Hott, is that government agencies, previously unwavering in their preference for hardcopies and faxes, have had to learn to work electronically. “This has been a very nice change,” Hott says. Throughout the pandemic, issues concerning inventory have factored into the chemical industry’s plans to preserve supply chains, according to Hott. “It seems that every company has had a lot of resources poured into contingency plans,” he says. “Companies in general need to rethink whether they keep higher levels of important inventories, such as personal protection equipment and cleaning supplies as part of the contingency planning, and also consider the geographic footprint of their supplier base and logistics routing. Having multiple suppliers in different regions does not necessarily mitigate all risks—it's a more complex analysis to obtain true supply chain resilience.” But for companies that don’t already have that capability, achieving it now can be daunting, according to NCEC’s Thomson. “The purpose of resilience is to prepare yourself if a crisis happens, so you’re best placed to respond,” he says. “It’s difficult to staff-up resilience in the middle of a crisis, and that’s essentially what we’re in now. It is a long-running crisis that is having big knock-on effects to organizations globally. Creating resilience while you’re also trying to shed cost is a really challenging thing to do.” LASTING EFFECTS As of late July, while the U.S. continued to struggle with the spread of COVID-19, China and much of Europe had regained a semblance of normalcy. The respite may be brief if a second wave of the coronavirus crests in the autumn and winter months, potentially requiring reapplication of lockdown orders and putting supply chains at risk once again. Companies should be preparing now for this possibility, Thomson says. And while the pandemic will end someday, Thomson believes its effects on businesses will be long lasting. “I think the longer this goes on, the likelihood of this reshaping business substantially increases,” he says. “I think that organizations, particularly larger organizations, will look at building in more resilience, and that might mean looking at alternative suppliers or alternative routes, and they might be looking to de-risk some of their sourcing. If one organization provides 75 percent of a particular raw material, they might try to reduce that percentage. Likewise, for the products that they’re putting on the market, we’ll likely see them focusing on core markets, and potentially stepping away or downsizing on some of their growth markets.” For Hott, the pandemic is further proof of the value product stewards provide. “At times, we needed to drop everything else and become figurative firefighters—for example, developing internal hand sanitizers and vetting new raw material sources, etcetera,” he says. “We did all of this while we kept on our mid-term hats of making sure that our new products received the regulatory, compliance, and stewardship attention that they needed to stay on track and our long-term hats of sustainability and trends that affect our products, both positively and negatively. Product stewards are experts at balancing these competing needs and prioritizing urgency while also tending to long-term goals.”   ED RUTKOWSKI is editor-in-chief of The Synergist. Send feedback to The Synergist.

urfinguss, C5Media, metamorworks/Getty Images
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine: “Learning from SARS: Preparing for the Next Disease Outbreak: Workshop Summary” (2004). The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine: “U.S. Chemical Supply Chain: Industry Perspective Amid COVID-19,” presentation by Kevin Swift in “The U.S. Chemical Supply Chain: Vulnerabilities Highlighted by COVID-19 Webinar (July 2020). PricewaterhouseCoopers: “COVID-19: What It Means for the Chemicals Industry.”

Although the print version of The Synergist indicated The IAQ Investigator's Guide, 3rd edition, was already published, it isn't quite ready yet. We will be sure to let readers know when the Guide is available for purchase in the AIHA Marketplace.
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- Ed Rutkowski, Synergist editor
Disadvantages of being unacclimatized:
  • Readily show signs of heat stress when exposed to hot environments.
  • Difficulty replacing all of the water lost in sweat.
  • Failure to replace the water lost will slow or prevent acclimatization.
Benefits of acclimatization:
  • Increased sweating efficiency (earlier onset of sweating, greater sweat production, and reduced electrolyte loss in sweat).
  • Stabilization of the circulation.
  • Work is performed with lower core temperature and heart rate.
  • Increased skin blood flow at a given core temperature.
Acclimatization plan:
  • Gradually increase exposure time in hot environmental conditions over a period of 7 to 14 days.
  • For new workers, the schedule should be no more than 20% of the usual duration of work in the hot environment on day 1 and a no more than 20% increase on each additional day.
  • For workers who have had previous experience with the job, the acclimatization regimen should be no more than 50% of the usual duration of work in the hot environment on day 1, 60% on day 2, 80% on day 3, and 100% on day 4.
  • The time required for non–physically fit individuals to develop acclimatization is about 50% greater than for the physically fit.
Level of acclimatization:
  • Relative to the initial level of physical fitness and the total heat stress experienced by the individual.
Maintaining acclimatization:
  • Can be maintained for a few days of non-heat exposure.
  • Absence from work in the heat for a week or more results in a significant loss in the beneficial adaptations leading to an increase likelihood of acute dehydration, illness, or fatigue.
  • Can be regained in 2 to 3 days upon return to a hot job.
  • Appears to be better maintained by those who are physically fit.
  • Seasonal shifts in temperatures may result in difficulties.
  • Working in hot, humid environments provides adaptive benefits that also apply in hot, desert environments, and vice versa.
  • Air conditioning will not affect acclimatization.
Acclimatization in Workers