April 29, 2020

What it's like to live—and work—in a factory producing PPE materials for 28 days

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    From March 23 through April 19, 43 Braskem America workers lived at the company's petrochemical plant in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, working 12-hour shifts every day to produce raw materials used to make personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers, Meagan Flynn reports for the Washington Post.

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    Turning a factory into a dormitory in the name of PPE

    According to Braskem, the company is the top petrochemical producer in the Americas. As the new coronavirus epidemic began sweeping the United States, Braskem shifted its manufacturing to focus on polypropylene, which is a key chemical in manufacturing PPE. According to Flynn, Braskem sells its polypropylene "product to clients that turn it into a nonwoven fabric, which medical manufacturers ultimately use to make face masks, medical gowns, and even disinfectant wipes, among other items."

    To ramp up its production of polypropylene and keep workers safe, Braskem's plants in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, and in Neal, West Virginia, launched so-called "live-ins" at the factories. For a period of 28 consecutive days, workers lived at the factories and worked 12-hour shifts each day, with shifts running all day and all night.

    Workers who participate in the full 28-day live-ins are not permitted leave the plants, and the factories are closed to all nonessential personnel and visitors. Those policies are intended to protect the workers from exposure to the new coronavirus.

    To prepare for the live-in, Joe Boyce, an operations shift supervisor at the Marcus Hook plant, replaced the desk chair in his office with an air mattress and "brought a toothbrush and shaving kit" to the factory, moving in "as if it were a makeshift college dormitory," Flynn writes.

    According to Flynn, other workers brought in televisions, video game consoles, and cornhole boards, and they slept in conference rooms that were turned into makeshift bedrooms. Braskem provided pots and pans and a stove for the plant's office kitchen, where the workers made "creamed corn, barbecue, and even filet mignon dinners for more than 40 people a night," Flynn writes.

    Boyce said he and his 42 coworkers eventually fell into a routine, living as one large household. "We had to kind of adapt. We came up with a chart for housekeeping chores so we could all clean the bathrooms and clean up after meals," he said. "It wasn't long before we're all sitting in the same spots at dinner."

    "We tried to make them as comfortable as possible," Mark Nikolich, Braskem's CEO, said. Nikolich said the live-ins aren't required, and all workers who participate volunteer to do so. According to Braskem, participating workers are paid for 24 hours for each day of the live in, and they receive a wage increase for both working hours and off-hours during that time.

    'We were just happy to be able to help'

    According to Braskem, during the 28-day live-in at the Marcus Hook plant, the 43 workers produced tens of millions of pounds of raw materials used to make PPE.

    Nikolich estimated that the Marcus Hook and Neal facilities over the past month have produced enough polypropylene to make either 500 million N95 masks or 1.5 billion surgical masks if the material was used exclusively to make those masks. However, Nikolich said the chemical likely will be used to make other PPE, such as medical gowns, as well.

    "It just makes you immensely proud to be associated with a team like that," Nikolich said. "They're operating in a strange environment 24/7, 365."

    "We were just happy to be able to help," Boyce said. "We've been getting messages on social media from nurses, doctors, EMS workers, saying thank you for what we're doing. But we want to thank them for what they did and are continuing to do. That's what made the time we were in there go by quickly, just being able to support them" (Flynn, Washington Post, 4/23).

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