This week, Winpak started shipping the first batch of 40,000 face shields manufactured at the company’s Winnipeg packaging materials manufacturing site in the Murray Industrial Park.
The company is also working on a moulded face shield design deploying thermal form equipment that it uses to make all sorts of preformed packaging materials for the food industry.
Winpak and the Manitoba manufacturing industry in general has more to contribute than just personal protective equipment (PPE) when it comes to efforts to reopen some economic activity as the province emerges from its COVID-19 lockdown.
As an essential service, manufacturing has been open for the past six weeks and companies like Winpak and many others have learned a thing or two about how to work safely during a viral pandemic.
As the province announces the first steps in getting some service and retail businesses back in business, it might want to look to the manufacturing sector for some tips.
Quality-control regimens to ensure product safety have schooled manufacturers in the way quality systems are designed, repeatable and actually utilized.
For instance, Winpak, which has plants across North America, has instituted all sorts of precautions for these COVID times, including lots of cleaning protocols. It is just about to roll out an automated temperature testing device at all its plants.
Olivier Muggli, the Winnipeg-based company’s CEO, said the company is fortunate its production lines make social distancing possible without having to redesign production flow.
"Put it this way," Muggli said. "The risk of becoming infected in our plants is less than what people might face in their private lives while going to the grocery stores, for example."
The company has done a lot of training and has put materials in place for personal cleaning and disinfecting equipment at regular intervals.
"We have been extraordinarily proactive in bringing on these programs," he said.
Security measures have been put in place to limit the number of people in the plant. Muggli himself has to stay put in his office — even he is not allowed on the shop floor.
"For the first time I have been so happy we’re living in an island in the middle of the continent," he said. "We have been so shielded in a way. It is unbelievably lucky."
At its 12 plants in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, it has only had two employees who have tested positive for COVID-19. That’s out of more than 3,000 employees in total.
The Manitoba office of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters (CME) is serious about its safety protocols. It has an active safety team with regimens that companies do not take lightly.
But Ron Koslowsky, the head of the Manitoba CME, said in order to maintain the positive trend in infection rates while slowly bringing the rest of the economy back online, measures need to be put in place.
"We have regular meetings with provincial officials and we have told them in order for everything to go forward, they need to have testing in place," Koslowsky said. "Once there is a reopening, the last thing you want is to have major problems to arise."
Another thing he believes is necessary is proper and consistent messaging about what is required.
"By and large we (manufacturing industries) have been staying at work and we have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work when people do have to come to work," he said. "Our safety association here has done a phenomenal job in getting good information out."
While there are sad reports about outbreaks at meat-packing plants across North America that have forced them to close, Manitoba’s pork plants, for instance, have been largely spared such incidents. Many believe it’s because of stringent safety measures.
The discipline necessary to meet quality standards that has been ingrained in the industry over the past few decades has now become mission critical. The industry knows a thing or two about how to keep people safe in the work environment.
Phil Houde, secretary to the economic growth committee of cabinet and CEO of the province’s Economic Development Office, has been on the twice-weekly calls with more than two-dozen economic development people from across the province’s diverse industries over the past few weeks.
He said, " People are rising to the challenge and it really picks you up when you hear the silver linings."
Winpak has definitely lost some business. It makes all sorts of packaging products for the hospitality and food service industries and that has all but evaporated. (The company had to move up its previously scheduled summer plant shutdown to an Easter-time shutdown for its Toronto plant.)
But it has experienced a spike in demand for its cheese and prepared meats packaging as people have been forced out of the restaurants (and university and school cafeterias) and are now eating at home.
With so many people experiencing so much hardship and uncertainty, the province’s manufacturing industry has been reluctant to speak too loudly about the fact that it has done quite well these past several weeks.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.