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Chemical firms say they want to keep going

Industry is deemed essential critical infrastructure by federal and state governments

by Melody Bomgardner and Craig Bettenhausen
March 24, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 12

As the US government instructs citizens to follow social-distancing practices and several states mandate that residents stay home amid the COVID-19 pandemic, chemical makers continue to operate. They say they are taking measures to ensure that their workers stay safe.

A growing number of states are enacting coronavirus lockdowns that follow guidelines issued by the Department of Homeland Security listing certain workers as employed in essential, critical infrastructure. Chemical manufacturing is on the list, as are other industries—such as pharmaceuticals, medical devices, water treatment, and food and agriculture—that rely on chemicals.

Though Dow is best known for providing basic chemicals to industrial customers, many of its products make their way into critical health-care products. Dow spokesperson Kyle Bandlow draws a direct line from company operations to the battle against SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

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“Dow technology provides much-needed support critical to public health and safety, as well as economic and national security, that have been brought on by the pandemic, such as antiseptics, disinfectants, detergents, protective garments for medical professionals and more,” Bandlow tells C&EN.

Still, it’s not business as usual at chemical firms. At Dow and other companies, nonessential employees are working from home or remote locations. Dedicated teams continuously evaluate manufacturing facilities and make adjustments for worker health and safety.

Chemours, for example, is operating all of its US plants but minimizing contact between workers and banning visitors other than critical deliveries. Employees at the firm’s Wilmington, Delaware, headquarters are working from home wherever possible.

At Ashland’s labs and manufacturing sites, measures include “practicing social distancing, working in shifts, and ramped up cleaning procedures,” according to Keith Silverman, head of the company’s quality and environmental health and safety operations.

Similar procedures are now in place at Regis Technologies, an Illinois fine-chemical maker and contract-research organization, CEO Louis Glunz IV says. At Regis, only R&D and production staff are at work. “If people are doing chemistry, they’re coming in,” he says. “By getting rid of those other people, you’ve reduced the amount of contact in the facility.”

Because Regis operates 24 hours a day, 5 days a week, some employees have switched shifts to reduce contact. That flexibility also helps those with kids at home, Glunz says. “One guy, his wife works as well, says, ‘Wow, someone’s got to be home for the kids. I’ll work the second shift.’”

“It is a challenge, and we feel bad asking these guys to come in when most people are told not to,” Glunz says. “But we’re trying to reduce contact as much as we can.”

At Eugene, Oregon–based Cascade Chemistry, an R&D service firm and contract manufacturer, managers are emphasizing to lab workers the importance of hand washing and social distancing. “Don’t congregate together; an 8-ft hood gives you the space you need,” says Scott Mohler, Cascade’s head of business development.

Workers are also advocating for themselves. The United Steelworkers, a union representing chemical industry workers, just negotiated a coronavirus protocol with BASF covering 12 facilities in the US.

The agreement, which USW says can serve as a model for the industry, protects workers who are in quarantine for health reasons relating to coronavirus by providing up to 14 days of base pay. BASF is required to notify the union 30 days in advance of any worksite closure and provide temporary pay and health benefits to affected workers. BASF will lift waiting periods for health benefits. It will also take workers’ temperatures as they enter plants to make sure they don’t have a fever.

Not all industries are functioning at full speed, an ominous sign for future chemical demand. For example, although the government lists auto manufacturing as critical infrastructure, most automakers have stopped operating. General Motors announced on March 18 that it will suspend manufacturing in North America “due to market conditions, to deep clean facilities, and continue to protect people.” The company says it will reevaluate production week-to-week starting March 30.

But for now, the jump in demand for personal protective equipment is keeping manufacturing lines at some firms humming. Facilities producing DuPont’s Tyvek material, including the firm’s largest, in Richmond, Virginia, are operating 24 hours a day. The company is making more than 9 million protective garments for health-care workers a month. But even with 19 plants around the world, DuPont says total demand often exceeds its capacity.

3M currently produces 400 million N95 respirator masks in the US each year and plans to increase capacity by 30% in the next 12 months. The firm says its global production, which includes facilities in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, will double to a rate of over 1.1 billion respirators per year.

The need for oxygen and other critical medical gases means a ramp up of operations at the industrial gas supplier Airgas. The company says it is drawing on its experience from peak flu-season demand and from natural disaster evacuation and response efforts.

Lubrizol’s life science business has seen a demand spike for its Carbopol-brand polymer, which forms the gel base for many hand sanitizers. The firm says it is prioritizing customers in sanitizing and cleaning applications. Prior to the pandemic, Lubrizol was investing in additional Carbopol capacity in Calvert City, Kentucky, and now says those plans are being expedited.

Meanwhile, Aemetis, a California biofuel manufacturer, is also providing a crucial hand-sanitizer ingredient: pure ethanol. The company says it began shipments on March 20 from its plant near Modesto, California, to help address shortages.

Industry insiders say the easing of workplace restrictions in China is one sign that business in the US will return to normal in the not-too-distant future. For now, though, executives are watching warily as US governors and mayors mull ever-tighter policies.

“It is essential that chemical facilities are allowed to continue to operate and provide life-saving drugs and medical supplies, materials important to our food supply and infrastructure, among a host of other vital products during this COVID-19 crisis,” Jennifer Abril, head of the chemical trade group SOCMA, says in a statement.


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