(Photos: Yang Danxu)
In a workshop of Japanese-funded company SMC (China) in the Beijing Economic‑Technological Development Area (BDA), workers swiftly assemble pneumatic parts, heads lowered in unflinching concentration. Apart from the fact that everyone is wearing a mask and maintaining a distance of at least one metre, the workshop is operating much as it did before the coronavirus.
So far, there have been “zero infections” among the company’s nearly 7,000 workers.
A company that provides core components for industrial machinery, SMC resumed production in early February, while the outbreak was sweeping through China. Within a month, its production had returned to pre-outbreak levels. So far, there have been “zero infections” among the company’s nearly 7,000 workers. The secret: doing everything to keep the virus outside the factory.
SMC China general manager Ma Qinghai recalls that as the virus spread in late January, many companies shifted into manufacturing masks and ventilators, and there was a surge in demand for SMC China’s components, making it imperative for the factory to resume operations.
However, with thousands of workers heading back to Beijing from all over China, just one infected person slipping through the cracks would result in unthinkable consequences.
SMC China’s core strategy is to hold its defences and not allow the virus any opportunity to take hold. Ma said, “Our employees know one another and are familiar with the factory environment. As long as we safeguard the entry points, there will be no cross-infection. That is the key.”
“With thousands of workers returning from various parts of the country and staying in company dormitories, if one person is infected, that would affect the company’s efforts against the virus.” - Ma Qinghai, SMC China
However, labour-intensive industries need many workers gathered for long periods in workshops and dormitories. How does one prevent these places from becoming hotbeds of infection? This major potential risk has been exposed in many places around the world, and has been a pressing issue for the Chinese authorities and companies over the past three months.
Keeping an eye on workers’ health through mobile phones
SMC China is a model of balancing the needs of epidemic prevention and that of resuming production.
Before resuming operations, the company launched a mobile app and got workers to log their temperatures and health conditions twice a day while they were on break in various locations, in order to ensure that returning workers were in good health.
The company arranged for every worker returning to Beijing to go through 14 days of solitary isolation before moving to dormitories with two or three people in each room, to reduce the risk of cross infection.
Ma told Zaobao that when production first resumed, the focus was on ensuring that there were no infections in the dormitories. He said, “With thousands of workers returning from various parts of the country and staying in company dormitories, if one person is infected, that would affect the company’s efforts against the virus.”
The company arranged for every worker returning to Beijing to go through 14 days of solitary isolation before moving to dormitories with two or three people in each room, to reduce the risk of cross-infection.
After production resumed, the manufacturing department had to submit a detailed daily record of temperature checks, workspace disinfection, mask and glove distribution, and canteen mealtimes. The record also includes details of the personnel in charge of each aspect of the prevention measures and the various issues encountered.
Since production resumed on 3 February, the company has provided components for many supply chains for coronavirus equipment, including mask manufacturing machines for over 500 companies, and core components for dozens of ventilator factories.
...the company implemented isolation measures for a period, where workers were not allowed to leave the production site indiscriminately. The company provided three meals a day and arranged for a dedicated team to purchase items for workers. - Hiroyuki Hamada, Renesas Semiconductor (Beijing)
The Chinese authorities have implemented strict regulations on companies applying to resume operations, including providing at least one mask a day for each worker, checking workers’ temperatures, and disinfecting factories. Some companies are also being very careful and on the alert, putting in unimaginable resources to combat the virus, taking even stricter measures than required by the authorities.
Hiroyuki Hamada, chairman and general manager of Renesas Semiconductor (Beijing), said that to prevent an “invasion” of the virus, the company implemented isolation measures for a period, where workers were not allowed to leave the production site indiscriminately. The company provided three meals a day and arranged for a dedicated team to purchase items for workers. The arrangement continued until late April.
In China, these seemingly callous measures have not been met with any obstacles, due to active information dissemination by the companies and the workers’ own anxieties about the virus.
Strict and comprehensive measures help workers overcome fears
Hamada said, “One initial problem was helping workers overcome their psychological fears. Strict and comprehensive measures put them more at ease… everyone knows these strict rules are for the sake of their health.”
This company has about 600 workers in its workshop in Beijing, and over 90% live in the dormitories on site. Before production resumed on 10 February, over half of the workers were on break in other locations, and the company arranged to transport them back. Those who returned to Beijing on public transport were put in solitary isolation for 14 days in the company’s quarantine dormitories.
Company higher-ups directly lead pandemic prevention committees
Some of the manufacturing companies in Beijing interviewed for this report have established pandemic prevention committees directly led by the company’s leaders. After devising detailed epidemic prevention mechanisms, they disseminated information about them through staff manuals.
Beijing Benz has had zero new confirmed cases for over 100 days.
The instruction manual distributed to the employees of Beijing Benz Automotive Co., Ltd. for example, lays out the rules and regulations for personal preventive measures, commuting to and from work, as well as the preventive measures to be undertaken at the workplace, canteen and dormitories. It includes text and images, teaching employees the correct method of washing hands, putting on masks, and disposing of them.
Employees are asked to have meals at different times and to sit alone at the tables.
Beijing Benz also requested every department to set up employee health observation rooms and formulated an emergency standard operating procedure to be followed in the event that workers display fever and cough symptoms, or are found to be infected with the coronavirus. Beijing Benz has had zero new confirmed cases for over 100 days.
Many enterprises have also placed emphasis on social distancing measures at mealtimes, believing that this is a key area of focus in their preventive measures. Employees are asked to have meals at different times and to sit alone at the tables. A safe distance of one metre and above is to be kept when collecting meals and washing hands.
Each table is also numbered at the Renesas canteen. Employees are to record the hour they had their meal and the table they sat at for the convenience of contact tracing should confirmed cases be found in the company.
...as of 21 April, industrial enterprises above designated size (industrial enterprises that generate at least 20 million RMB in annual revenue from principal activities) have achieved an average operating rate of 99.1% and an employee return rate of 95.1%.
As a result of these thorough preventive measures, the giant economic engine that is China can be safely restarted. According to statistics from the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, as of 21 April, industrial enterprises above designated size (industrial enterprises that generate at least 20 million RMB in annual revenue from principal activities) have achieved an average operating rate of 99.1% and an employee return rate of 95.1%. As the earliest country that reported an outbreak and the fastest major power to emerge from the pandemic, China’s experience is valuable to various parties.
Although domestic cases are largely contained, the ongoing spread of the pandemic in other countries is still a risk that China has to face. However, after a round of practical experience, the enterprises interviewed for this report are confident that their preventive measures, now the norm, would remain effective.
Hamada said, “We’re staying vigilant to a second wave of outbreak and have thus retained 90% of our preventive measures until now. With these measures in place, we were able to maintain zero new confirmed cases for the past few months and are confident that they would continue to help us defend ourselves against another outbreak.”
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