At Merrill's Packaging, executives understood the implications of COVID-19 early in the pandemic, says Leslie Lopez, the company's controller. That's not terribly surprising, given the Burlingame, California-based manufacturer produces specialized packaging for the medical industry; awareness of public health threats and appropriate responses are deeply embedded in Merrill's DNA.
Still, the 100-employee company acted with unusual alacrity in addressing the dangers of the coronavirus -- while simultaneously remaining open for business. And by any objective measure, their success in keeping their people safe while maintaining revenue flow has been spectacular.
"To this day, we haven't had a single case of COVID-19 at Merrill's, and that really makes us an exception," says Lopez. "Statistically, there should be about 20 infections for a company of this size. But the protocols we've put in place have been very effective. We just took it very seriously from the start, well before any shelter-in-place orders were issued."
One of the things Merrill's did was enroll in the Healthy Business Certification program sponsored by the California Manufacturers and Technology Association (CMTA). The online course is aimed at identifying, reducing, eliminating and reporting workplace coronavirus hazards. Participants who implement the recommendations outlined in the initiative receive a CMTA imprimatur. Merrill's was the first company to obtain such a certification.
"We'd already take significant precautions before we took the CMTA course, but we were determined to do everything we could to maximize safety for our people, our customers and the public at large," says Lopez. "We just wanted to make sure we weren't missing anything."
Gino DiCaro, CMTA's senior vice president, said the association launched the Healthy Business Certification once it became clear that a standardized approach was needed to both ensure public health and keep manufacturing companies solvent.
"Many owners, human resource executives and other managers have used our certification course to ensure their facilities are implementing the proper protocols," says DiCaro. "Our ultimate goal is to keep California's supply chain moving and our production workers safe through this pandemic. Merrill's Packaging and other manufacturers deserve our congratulations for leading the way."
Indeed, the measures taken by Merrill's to exclude COVID-19 -- and effectively corral it if it does appear -- might well set the standard for American manufacturing at large.
"We decided that if four or more people tested positive for COVID, we would shut down completely for two weeks," says Lopez.
Tellingly, this foundational protocol hasn't ever been activated due to the fact that the supporting safeguards have been so effective.
Protective measures instituted by the company include:
Employee buy-in was also critical in excluding COVID-19, says Lopez. "We're a company that provides products to the medical sector," she explains. "We understand and believe in science here. We've never had a problem getting our employees to conform to our precautions -- they embrace them."
Many of Merrill's employees are older, and company executives are particularly concerned about their safety, given that COVID mortality increases with age. So a decision was made to offer a furlough package to senior employees, Lopez says. Three employees took the option.
"We wanted them to know we supported them completely if they felt like they needed to take extra precautions," says Lopez. "Once we were certified by the CMTA, they opted to return."
Lopez emphasizes that Merrill's COVID protocols are flexible and will always reflect both the public health realities of the pandemic and the conclusions of ongoing medical research.
"Again, we're a company that's grounded in science," she says. "We'll go where the facts take us. The CMTA class, in fact, helped us identify some outdated information and allowed us to refine our safeguards."
Merrill's also promotes social responsibility in accessing and allocating critical resources during the pandemic, Lopez says.
"We purchased a lot of materials early in the pandemic," she says, "and we quickly ran out of some critical items. But we worked on adjusting our supply chains, we innovated, and we were able to keep going. We don't believe in hoarding, in trying to monopolize resources. That's not who we are. We're part of the community, and our business is predicated on ensuring community safety and well-being. And that's going to be our position with vaccines. Our people will get their vaccinations as they become available, and in the proper order. We'll wait in line like everybody else."
For more information on the Healthy Business Certification program, go to www.safelymakingca.cmta.net/covid19.