Stackpole discusses the impact of COVID-19 on plumbing manufacturers and delves into emergency preparedness
WQP Managing Editor Lauren Del Ciello asked Kerry Stackpole, CEO and executive director for Plumbing Manufacturers International (PMI), about how the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, impacts plumbing manufacturers. Read the interview below, which highlights the importance of safety measures and emergency preparedness. Stackpole also provides some actionable tips to manufacturers on improving safety in the workplace, as well as looks to the future beyond the pandemic.
Lauren Del Ciello: What exactly are considered essential workers and how do PMI members fit in with that?
Kerry Stackpole: Our members are working diligently to maintain their production lines and their production facilities in full operation. The good news is because we're talking about factories our members have the ability to do social distancing and in most cases they can make adjustments to accommodate employees to make sure that they do keep that social distance and certainly continue to fill the pipeline. In that same vein is plumbers who are also identified as essential service providers. So our members are working diligently to make sure they have the products and supplies they need to be able to do their job.
Del Ciello: How is PMI working on both the state and federal levels right now to advocate for its members best interests, be it roles as essential personnel or safety or financial protections?
Stackpole: We've done a couple of different things. One is that once it became clear state government was going to have the leadership role in determining what the stay-at-home provisions and emergency declarations meant, PMI reached out to the governors in the states where the definition for "essential services" or "essential companies" was not clear or needed further clarification. We also reached out to Vice President Mike Pence and the coronavirus task force to ask them to be certain that plumbing product manufacturers were designated as essential providers. We also reached out to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and asked them to clarify where plumbing product manufacturers fit in in the in the national emergency declaration and guidelines that they produce. Most of the governors actually utilize the DHS guidelines, so making sure we had clarification there was really pretty critical.
Del Ciello: Those guidelines started out very broad. So it sounds like you guys have been very busy advocating on your members' behalf during this past week.
Stackpole: I jokingly said to somebody I know that, "I probably haven't called or written so many governors in my entire career as I did last week."
Plumbing Manufacturer Obstacles Amid COVID-19
Del Ciello: I know that you all conducted a member survey on COVID-19 impacts. So from that and from conversations you've had with your members, what are some of the biggest obstacles your members are facing during COVID-19 concerns and shelter-in-place orders right now?
Stackpole: We actually have conducted three different surveys. We asked members in kind of a broad fashion what they thought the impact was going to be. We asked them in more specific form about travel restrictions and other kinds of travel related impacts to their business. More recently, we've asked them about operational changes and shifts. A couple of things have surfaced right away. Clearly folks are concerned about how they're going to continue to maintain operations. In some cases, we have member companies who have had some conversations with local officials. In some states, Nevada being a good example, the governor has delegated the responsibility for determining what businesses can be open and what businesses can be closed to the local authorities. And so in a couple of cases, we've had some member companies who have reached out to us to say, "Our local government is asking us why we think we should be open." So we've been providing support materials to those companies.
Additionally, we have a number of companies who are looking for strategies about how best to manage. So we've been talking about delayed arrival for employees or staggered arrivals. So you don't have a bunch of people bunching up at the entrance to the factories or the facilities. Some of our members, when we've asked them what they're doing to make sure that they're working to prevent COVID-19 impacts on their business, many of them have talked about they'll take temperatures as employees come into the plant to make sure that no one is coming in with a fever. They're doing social distancing on the plant floor. They're staggering arrivals and departures. They're continuing to look for ways to protect their employees from any kind of infection or any kind of medical dilemmas on the plant floor. Interestingly enough, most of the manufacturing companies, if not all of them, frankly, have provisions in place for when employees get sick. Because in a normal circumstance, not a pandemic, if you have employees who have colds or flus the companies are generally going to ask those folks to stay home or go home. Then, of course, it takes on more urgency in this circumstance.
Our member companies are working very diligently to make sure that they can keep people safe. In some cases, one of our members in Chicago for example, has a medical team on board. They actually have their own medical team that is monitoring the plant and monitoring employees in the plant to make sure that if folks have any illnesses or are experiencing any sort of uncertainty that there's somebody right there who can handle this and work with them to address the issue.
Emergency Preparedness & the Water Industry
Del Ciello: It's absolutely a developing situation. You brought up some interesting points that I want to touch on a little bit. I'm wondering if you have spoken to anyone who felt like they had a pretty solid emergency preparedness plan to help prepare them for this situation?
Stackpole: A number of members have reported that they had emergency action plans in place in the event of a range of problems. You would not necessarily think you were going to deal with a pandemic, but in many cases our manufacturers deal with different kinds of risks and different kinds of crises on a regular basis. Many of them have emergency action plans in place to help them deal with what's at hand. That was a question in one of our earlier surveys and so we asked "Does your company have an emergency response plan in place to prepare your company and your employees?" About 70% of the members said they did. Another 20% or so said they are developing one right now.
So it's clear that for the most part our folks have been used to dealing with or thinking about what are the worst case scenarios that could impact their businesses and it comes in forms. If you think back to just a year ago, the imposition of tariffs on the Chinese government was a great example where, again, you have to kind of pull out your emergency plan and say, "Okay, our supply chain is now going to be severely limited. What do we do?" I think for most manufacturers having scenario plans in place is not an uncommon idea.
Open Communication Channels During a Pandemic
Del Ciello: So you talked about how social distancing is possible in the plants which is phenomenal, but what other steps can manufacturers take to remain safe right now and also to effectively communicate with their customers and keep those communication lines open?
Stackpole: I think one of the things that our members are doing and we're seeing on a pretty regular basis at this point now is companies are creating COVID-19 response teams, so that they have a group of people who are meeting on a regular basis to deal with and address and communicate to their employees what's going on, what the latest updates are, and how the company is responding. This is a high level communications issue and now where many of the manufacturers have basically sent the people who can work from home, they've sent them home so they can work from their kitchen table or wherever they have resources. But do you still have people coming in and out of the factory? Those folks need regular and consistent communications. So I think that if you're a manufacturer or if you're service provider, having a group of folks designated as your COVID-19 response team is really important so that you have consistent communication. Because to your point, there's a lot of unknowns and the landscape is shifting every day.
The good news is the kinds of agencies and people you want to talk to can be found at any number of the associations in the water industry that you might belong to or if you're a member of PMI or any of the other groups out there. Virtually all of them, including us, have COVID-19 resource centers established. You should reach out to your association because there's a pretty good chance they're hearing that question that you have from a lot of other people. I encourage people to use that resource, if they feel the need to go further up in the stream, you can certainly go to the Department of Homeland Security website which gives a fair amount of information. CDC has a great website on COVID-19, so there are good resources and of course the National Association of Manufacturers is also another great resource for people in the manufacturing business. There's absolutely no shortage of good information, but it does take some time to digest it. A lot of times your association can be maybe the best resource because they've already digested it on behalf of 20 or 30 other people who might've called with the same question or a similar question.
Del Ciello: I want to end the interview on hopefully a bit of a positive note because I think there's a lot that we can learn from these experiences to help us become stronger. How can the plumbing industry potentially learn from these experiences to create an even more resilient future?
Stackpole: That is a great question. I think, by and large, the trick here is to keep track of the lessons you're learning as you go. A lot of folks joke about it, but keeping a journal of what your experiences are and what bumps you ran into are really a great resource to have. I know people say, "Well, you don't start writing journals in the middle of a fire," and I don't disagree with that, but if you could find some quiet time to keep some notes and track the things that got in your way during this pandemic, then I think that that's certainly one of the things that folks can take away. It's frankly one of the reasons I like the idea of having a response team, because in that sense you've got all the issues sort of center focused. Those folks are going to be well-positioned to turn around when this all comes to a conclusion and reveal what they've learned. So I think it's tracking what the bumps have been, tracking the things that have gotten in your way during this time and then utilizing those as part of your planning going forward. Most of us would never think of a pandemic among the emergencies you might have in a plant. You might not think of a pandemic, but now that we have it there's certainly a lot of lessons here.
*Editor’s note: The above interview has been edited for grammar and clarity. The above interview was recorded March 30, 2020.