Ready or not, those of us in manufacturing are (mostly) all back to work, coronavirus or not. It’s tough to make things via Zoom. While many office workers will be working from home for the foreseeable future (and, in some cases, maybe forever), we’re back in the trenches. So, let’s talk about how to ensure, first, that going to work doesn’t turn into a stop on the way to intensive care or the morgue and, second, that our shops and factories won’t be crippled by sick workers.

For reasons that I cannot begin to understand, a great many people are not taking the coronavirus seriously. The president, vice president, many governors, and some broadcast pundits have been spouting happy talk about the virus going away if we just ignore it.

But the people who truly understand this disease—medical people trained to cope with deadly plagues, recovering patients and families of the dead—are terrified by the virus. This coronavirus is not a political hoax. It’s not the common flu or cold. It’s not exclusively a blue state coastal problem. Hospitalization or even death are very real possibilities. (The coronavirus killed more Americans by May 15 than the total deaths from all wars since WWII, including Korea, Viet Nam, Afghanistan and both Gulf wars—and 30,000 more deaths occurred over the following four weeks.)

While the risk of dying has been shown to be greatest for older people (50 and up), scary numbers of much younger (and previously robust) people are ending up in ICU. Many “recovered” patients report serious lingering health problems that some doctors believe will never disappear. To top it all off, some discharged patients have received hospital bills for tens of thousands of dollars (hundreds of thousands for the uninsured), even though the federal government promised that coronavirus treatment would be free.

The health of our assembly plants depends entirely on the health of the employees. Reopening (or, for plants in essential industries that never did close) is not the same as staying open. Just one sick employee on the shop floor means, at best, halting production for sterilization. Two newly reopened Ford plants shut down again on the second day when two sick employees tested positive for coronavirus. One of those plants then stopped production again when a supplier plant closed because of an ill worker. A plant that can only produce intermittently is not much better than one in lockdown. Companies that fail to keep workers healthy won’t be around if the world ever returns to old “normal.”

There’s no reason to believe that the virus will disappear soon. In fact, there is every reason to believe that conditions will get worse before they get better. It appears that substantially less than 5 percent of the population has been infected so far, which means that at least 95 percent of us have no immunity. (For that matter, there remain questions about whether recovery results in immunity against reinfection or, if it does, how long the protection lasts.) Acquiring so-called “herd immunity” (the portion of the population that has been infected and recovered) should limit, but not fully stop further spread of disease. That ratio is typically around 60 percent, so we are less than 10 percent of the way there.

What about a vaccine that will make us immune and effectively wipe out the virus? Immediate prospects are not wonderful, even though several dozen candidates are in development. The world record for fastest development and rollout of a vaccine is a bit more than four years. That was for mumps. No vaccine has ever been found for many diseases—HIV, for example, or SARS, the close relative of the current coronavirus that terrified Asia and parts of the West in 2003. The usual government authorities at the CDC and FDA have lost all credibility. Independent authorities expect rollout of a vaccine midway through next year as a best case scenario, and the time frame will likely be much longer. Development of treatments to reduce the severity of infection (not a cure but symptomatic relief) could happen sooner; such treatments won’t prevent infection but would reduce the probability of most severe outcomes.

Repeated rapid-response testing of employees would make life so much easier and safer. (A rapid-response test takes less than 15 minutes from start to finish.) The White House, for example, is said to require all visitors to undergo a quick-response test. But testing won’t work because:

  • The necessary chemicals and equipment are hard to find and prohibitively expensive (unless you’re the White House).
  • The current tests are not accurate. Some FDA-approved rapid-response tests have been shown to produce wrong results as much as 50 percent of the time, which is no more reliable than a coin toss. The better ones seem to yield false positives (reporting infection where none exists) about 5 percent of the time and false negatives (an infected individual reported as clean) as much as 33 percent of the time.

Many of my clients are classified as essential services, which means they have continued producing despite social lockdowns, and I have visited some recently to maintain training and certification. Even though the infection rate in many of their communities has been increasing (alarmingly, in some areas), there have not been illnesses at any of those plants.

These are the steps they have taken and a few others worth considering:

Distancing. Being more than 6 feet from another person reduces chances of infection more than any other measure. The risk of infection increases rapidly with less distance for longer time. This paper explains the statistical probabilities of distancing and wearing face coverings in great detail, but it’s tough reading for a non-scientist.

Distancing includes modifications to lunchroom practices. Remove the chairs from one side of all tables so no one sits across from anyone else. Space the remaining chairs adequately. And it may be necessary to reduce lunchtime group sizes by increasing the number of lunch breaks.

Even restroom use needs to be evaluated. Flushing toilets produce aerosol plumes that haven’t mattered in the past. They can matter now, so capacity restrictions based on restroom size may need to be determined and enforced.

Masks. Masks covering mouth and nose, combined with distancing, reduce risk by 90 percent or more. The purpose of the mask is less about protecting the wearer than protecting everyone else. Masks minimize spread of virus more than preventing inhaling.

Here are the different types of masks, in decreasing order of effectiveness:

  • N95. These masks (technically, in the case of N95, classified as “respirators) provide most protection, but are uncomfortable for prolonged wear and still in short enough supply that authorities still ask that they be restricted to medical professionals actively working with patients. N95 masks with a valve for exhaling defeat the purpose of preventing viral spread.
  • Medical masks. Genuine masks come in ASTM grades 1 (least effective) to 3 (best). Masks without ASTM ratings aren’t truly medical masks.
  • Everything else from homemade masks to scarves and bandanas. Effectiveness depends on the density of the fiber and the tightness around nose and mouth. How effective? Almost always better than nothing, but not worth risk in a work environment.

To wear or not to wear a mask has been turned into a political statement. People will die as a result, and it won’t necessarily be the non-mask wearers, but the people they infect.

Washing hands. Do it often with soap. Water temperature doesn’t matter.

Use hand sanitizer. Alcohol (ethyl or isopropyl) does the work. The creamy part is purely cosmetic. The alcohol content needs to be more than 60 percent, so check the label. I actually skip the commercial sanitizer and just use straight 92 percent isopropyl in a spray bottle.

Ultraviolet light. It’s not for use on people, but likely works for disinfecting totes and other objects. Of the three UV light types—UVA, UVB, and UVC—the latter has the most energy.

Checking employee temperature at the door. A temperature of more than 100.5 F is a bad sign, but there is considerable evidence that virus spreads most in the day or two before symptoms appear. Temperature checks don’t hurt (and can screen out employees who don’t understand that they do more good staying home when ill), but don’t depend on them for real protection.

Managing employee behavior away from work. Doing everything right at work doesn’t help unless the same procedures are followed away from work. But social discipline is breaking down. There’s no question that the country was late in closing down, but too many states jumped the gun on reopening. And those states didn’t just reopen; they blew the doors off. Shockingly large numbers of people are partying like it’s the summer 2019. At best, they are dropping the masks and distancing practices they followed just a month ago.

A month ago, almost everyone in my area on the Florida Gulf were acting much more cautiously than the government was demanding, but now the masks are coming off, and people are falling over each other in stores. (Sadly, there’s a political element at play here.) So, the virus is surging. The enormous increases in infections and hospitalizations throughout the country have been largely disguised by the falloffs in the northeast. Knowing that the full consequences of careless group behavior take up to two weeks to appear, epidemiologists are expecting a rough summer followed by a bad autumn.

People being people, expect that not all employees will follow workplace discipline on their own time. Ohio State University may have an answer; its student athletes and their parents are being asked to sign a “Buckeye Pledge” that acknowledges the risks of infection and the importance of shared care. The athletes promise to follow guidelines established by the CDC to help contain the spread of the virus—not just at athletic facilities but everywhere. Along with being tested, Ohio State’s players are required to practice social distancing and wear masks when in public, to report if they have been exposed to anyone who has tested positive for the coronavirus, to disclose if they are suffering from symptoms, and to remain home if they are sick. The pledge has no legal status and the university will not revoke scholarships of violators, but anyone seen breaking the pledge can be suspended from athletics.

Employers actually have much greater leverage than OSU is exercising. Every state except Montana allows for “at will” termination of employees. That probably means a company can require employees to follow workplace practices away from work. In other words, failure to practice distancing, wearing masks and avoiding crowds while socializing could be grounds for dismissal. (There are constraints that vary from state to state, though, so don’t assume that “at will” applies in every situation.)

Educate. Humans often resent rules they don’t understand. Don’t assume that employees understand new health requirements. The world outside work is overrun with junk “science” and conspiracy mutterings claiming that concerns about the virus are nonsense. Many employees will believe the virus deniers. Just posting rules won’t change beliefs. In-depth education sessions repeated often are essential.

Almost everything on the list involves effort and cost. No sane person would do most of these things under normal conditions. But normal isn’t what it was six months ago. We can reasonably expect the old normal to return, but almost certainly not this year and, possibly, not for several years. Whether we survive this abnormal normal is entirely up to us.

Editor’s note: Jim Smith began work in electronics assembly in 1965 and founded Electronics Manufacturing Sciences in 1981 to teach soldering as a unified science. Thousands of engineers, technicians and managers worldwide have attended his "Science of Soldering" classes. Jim’s articles have appeared in more than 100 publications worldwide. His "Unconventional Wisdom" column appeared monthly in ASSEMBLY Magazine for more than 10 years and he remains a regular contributor to the magazine. For more information, visit