Tyson Foods break room

BREAK ROOM TABLES at the Tyson Food pork processing plant in Madison had dividers installed on the breakroom table tops to provide barriers if the break room is crowded.

Early in the pandemic, many meatpacking and manufacturing plants — along with other large companies — commonly experienced COVID-19 outbreaks or group exposures.

The key to reducing virus spread became being proactive, including ramping up worker safety and introducing new protocols to follow issued health guidelines.

Some local companies have been constantly adapting to COVID-19 protocols, and they are nowhere near getting back to normal — even with the vaccine on the horizon.

“We’ve transformed our facilities to protect our team members,” said Dan Richardson, plant manager of the Tyson Fresh Meats pork plant in Madison. “We conduct health screenings of all team members when they arrive for work, checking for symptoms such as coughing or shortness of breath. We’ve also installed infrared walk-through scanners to check their temperatures.”

Richardson said entrance exams are just the first step in a long list of procedures and precautions the plant has implemented since last year.

The Madison pork plant is a major employer, with 1,200 workers from around Northeast Nebraska. The company had to close for deep cleaning in early May 2020 after it experienced a COVID-19 outbreak.

From then on, the plant has been adjusting protocols throughout the summer and as cases spiked in the fall.

The Madison company installed physical barriers between workstations, expanded cafeteria seating and added more than 200 administrative staff and nurses, as well as a chief medical officer. There are social distancing monitors and employees dedicated to sanitizing common areas.

The plant also continues to use testing as a tool to limit virus spread.

“We’ve learned a great deal during the pandemic. For example, we’ve transitioned from facility-wide testing — which is a snapshot in time — to a new monitoring strategy that involves weekly, ‘always-on’ testing,” he said. “By using testing as a tool, we’re able to move from defense to offense in our efforts to actively search for and fight the virus.”

Nucor’s Vulcraft, a steel manufacturer, also has changed its environment drastically with the pandemic, said Adam McCutcheon, controller. Many of the company’s 350 employees work from home whenever possible.

Besides enforcing face coverings, Vulcraft also requires social distancing in its facilities and intense cleaning.

“Our cleaning crew has also done more than they used to do, cleaning high-touched areas more frequently. Our team has taken a lot upon themselves,” McCutcheon said. “We’re just making sure we are doing our part and are encouraging the team to be safe in the community.”

McCutcheon said Vulcraft has been lucky because the pandemic hasn’t affected employment in any way. But not having face-to-face interaction on a regular basis has probably been one of the biggest challenges, he said.

“We’ve continued to adapt and do whatever we can to keep everyone safe and continue the work,” McCutcheon said.

Continental ContiTech, another manufacturer in Norfolk, also has transitioned a lot of staff to work remotely, even engineers, said Tom Anderson, human resources manager.

“We try to avoid each other as much as possible to avoid close contact,” he said.

Anderson said social distancing the company’s 350 employees isn’t too difficult as most of its jobs don’t have to work in an assembly line, so people aren’t working within 6 feet of each other.

Continental also has been requiring face masks since July, and even stocks vending machines with them so employees can get new ones at any time.

Anderson said the pandemic didn’t leave the company’s employees untouched, but no one was laid off or furloughed.

“We were very fortunate because we are one of the few companies that participate in the state’s short-time compensation process,” he said. “Instead of the company laying people off, which affects individuals pretty hard, they encourage the company to reduce everyone’s (compensation) by 10% to 60%, and then everyone shares the pain. And everyone was eligible for unemployment for that time.”

The company is slowly returning to full production, much like many other manufacturers and plants around the country.

“I’m just really proud of the people here,” Anderson said. “I feel we did a good job to keep people safe.”

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