Repair and Maintenance During Covid-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly changed the maintenance landscape.
Some manufacturing facilities have suffered shutdowns or cut backs because of the virus. Permanent closures have occurred in some industries due to the lack of demand, and owners not being able to hold on with falling sales and profits. Industries such as the airline industry have been hit hard, and have laid of thousands of pilots, flight attendants, and support staff.
Sales of building materials hit a very low point early in the pandemic, even though they were classified as an essential service and remained open for business. Luckily, this sector has recovered well over the past couple months, driven by home owners staying home and spending money on home improvements.
The food industry has been strong during COVID-19, but have suffered staff storage with breaks outs of the disease at some plants, and have reduced production output due to social distancing in the workplace. Public institutions like universities are preparing to conduct their classes online for the fall semester and some expect only a fraction of students to be on campus. This will dramatically affect the number of staff needed to maintain the campus.
The cutbacks and closures have had a trickle-down effect on many support services as well. Maintenance contractors depend upon on repair and maintenance contracts with factories to keep their businesses alive as well. Some high security facilities, dependent on contractors to perform equipment maintenance, are still closed to outside contractors and vendors, unless absolutely essential to the business.
This many changes in a short period of time will have long term effects, both good and bad, on how equipment is maintained. Repair and maintenance relies heavily on interpersonal contact. The majority of maintenance activities requires more than one person working in isolation. Maintenance generally takes people working in close proximity to each other. Changing a large drive assembly for example may take two to four people, working within inches of each other.
Therefore, it is understandable that there will be increasing numbers of COVID-19 infections at manufacturing facilities. Maintenance offices and workshops are not all designed for six-feet of social distancing, many plants have reduced staff and people working from home to help reduce the spread, and to protect people’s health. However, the maintenance on equipment must be completed to keep the plant running.
Wearing the appropriate PPE to protect people from the spread of the virus creates challenges. Wearing face masks and shields are not normal PPE for maintenance personnel, and in plants that are hot and humid, face shields and safety glasses fog up from breath escaping the face mask; adding to the time of maintenance repairs and discomfort for the workers. In turn, additional work time must be added to allow for these safety precautions.
The way equipment is serviced and maintained has changed, and it doesn’t look like it returning to normal is anywhere in sight. The cost of doing maintenance has increased, just like producing and selling products in stores. Take in consideration the extra cost of security to screen employees, contractors, and customers. Rolling in the added cost of special PPE and sanitation means the difference between staying in business, or closing the doors.
Industries are rethinking how to conduct maintenance with less people while performing the same maintenance routines. Many staff are working from home, for example, maintenance planners are organizing and remotely communicating work orders to maintenance staff. This is not ideal; however, it keeps the maintenance staff executing repairs and maintenance. Changes like these have created a big technology challenge as people work from home, and need laptops linked to the plant’s secure networks to access maintenance programs and files. Infrastructures have been developed so people can work remotely, attend online meetings, and doing their best to keep the plant running during these pandemic times.
Projects that companies started before the pandemic or have scheduled, must still be carried out in order to meet deadlines and budgets. New software and business applications still need to be installed, trained out, and implemented. In the past, these projects were led by teams that went from plant-to-plant, province-to-province and country-to-country to assist in the implementation. Now provincial, state, and country borders are closed or restricted, and many companies have COVID-19 polices restricting travel until the threat has passed or under control; however, projects must be completed.
Project teams along with plant staff have been asked to come up with alternatives, and figure out how to complete projects without on-site support staff they had in the past. Corporate teams have been formed, and work behind the scenes developing alternative plans to support their facilities. They are busy developing videos and support documentation, to train people at the facilities to implement new systems and how to operate new equipment.
Although it takes a great deal of work to develop alternative methods to support plant projects, plant staff actually face the biggest challenge. They are already in a situation of reduced staff and resources, facing reduced maintenance budgets due to financial losses. Now, plant maintenance staff must take on the added responsibility, and take the lead role of site project manager. They have become the plant expert and trainer to teach staff new technology and equipment while still carrying their full work responsibilities at the plant.
Repairs and maintenance during this time have added new innovation, and people are asked to think out of the box and develop new ways of doing maintenance activities. For years maintenance routines have been done “the same old way” without a second thought, now with social distancing, fewer staff, and less operating capital in the maintenance budget, the need for smarter ways of doing maintenance have been developed. Getting the job done with the added COVID-19 challenges, maintenance staff have had to examine what really needs to be done, to be more specific on what to inspect, and how to inspect it to ensure the reliability of the equipment.
There will be benefits after this is over. Maintenance activities will look different because we have found better ways to perform them. More specific preventive maintenance inspections, will reduce time needed to complete work orders, thus reducing work order backlogs. There will be a cost reduction in plant-to-plant travel as technology has replaced the need for face-to-face meetings.
Indeed, maintenance departments have faced this challenge head on, and have adapted quickly to perform their essential repairs and maintenance. New ideas, new ways of doing things, COVID-19 has demanded innovation and maintenance departments should feel proud of their accomplishments. MRO