Lessons from a company that kept employees safe while operating during lockdown

Jim Brodie, Reading Truck’s vice president of operations, shared with FordPros what Reading Truck learned from operating during the lockdown and which practices large manufacturers that have been shuttered during the pandemic can use going forward.


When did you start planning for a COVID-19 incident?

JB: Our leadership was actually in the middle of discussing how we would react in the event of a COVID-19 case at one of our facilities when there was a false alarm at our Maryland facility. We’re fortunate that it turned out not to be COVID, but with more than 1,100 employees across the country everyone in leadership realized that we couldn’t wait for a case to hit and then react.

We started a process of trying to anticipate what could happen and planning out our responses, which ultimately developed into our internal COVID-19 task force.

What did you learn from that false alarm?

JB: Failing to plan is planning to fail. At this point in the pandemic, that seems so obvious but back in early March no one could have predicted the world would be in the position it is now. Our COVID-19 task force includes about 40 people from across departments and we meet every morning during the work week. Conditions and guidance from health care authorities like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and state health departments change almost daily. At a typical task force meeting, we go over changes in those guidelines, review potential cases and test results, and talk about employees who need to be tested. It’s really an extension of the daily management techniques that many manufacturers (including Reading) use in their regular business operations.

Organizationally, how can manufacturing companies prepare?

JB: The practices we put in place have helped us avoid transmission at our 13 manufacturing and upfit facilities across the US so far. But we had to be ready for the possibility of transmission, so we turned to the lean manufacturing principles we use in our plants for help. The task force created a set of standardized practices that can be implemented in the event of a potential exposure or incident. This “decision tree” gives the site leads a very simple playbook that tells them how to react appropriately no matter where an incident happens, who is on shift or whether an executive is available. That standard has been in place across the company since March, and we’ve made eight iterations of it as guidance and regulations have changed.

Which physical or operational changes that Reading made do they recommend?

JB: It shouldn’t come as a big shock that we had to make extensive changes to our physical locations and adjust workplace policies to match. That took a lot of different forms, including:

  • Reducing the number of shifts from three to two
  • Splitting our largest manufacturing plant into zones
  • Increasing space on the line and in common areas to allow for social distancing
  • Continuous education on safe behaviors like hand washing
  • Providing PPE and a choice of different masks and requiring them to be worn

Using thermal imaging and facial recognition tools to scan temperatures and creating zones were the most impactful things we did. Each zone has its own entrance, bathrooms, break rooms and other facilities. Any time the cameras register a high temperature the system triggers a warning and an automated email. At our smaller facilities we’re piloting facial recognition technology that will register whether an individual is wearing a mask in addition to body temperature.This reduces the possibility of infections spreading throughout the plant and lets us account for everyone who might be exposed if there is an infection at the plant.

Although masks weren’t the most important way to keep employees safe, it did give them a little bit of choice at a time when they might have been feeling out of control of their routine.

How has Reading addressed the human dimension of the pandemic?

JB: Clear and open communication is important to ensure information gets out and helps employees feel better about going to work. The dedicated COVID-19 hotline staffed by our onsite medical team is a single point of contact that employees can contact if they have COVID-like symptoms or related medical questions. We also send daily text messages to all employees letting them know how many employees have contracted the virus and how many have recovered. Operating throughout allergy season and cold and flu season, these daily messages were extremely effective at calming rumors and anxiety about employees with other illnesses.

What other advice do you have?

JB: Of course you have to take care of the fundamentals like social distancing, hand washing and those kinds of practices. But don’t neglect how you’re treating employees. My advice is to treat them like adults. Tell them when there are risks and be open about what’s going on.