One of the largest impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic was on the supply chain for necessary products like personal protective equipment (PPE), and cleaning and disinfecting materials. Although the supply chain has improved over the past few months, some businesses and health care facilities are still having difficulty procuring proper PPE like respirators and gloves.
Therefore, it’s worth considering the major factors that led to supply chain shortages in the first stages of the pandemic so companies can be prepared as cases continue to rise across the United States and other parts of the world.
A recent report by the National Safety Council outlines several key reasons for the disruption in PPE supply chains. The biggest contributor was that almost half of the world’s masks were made in China before the pandemic. Once the virus started spreading there, China cut back on exports of masks to other parts of the world. Additionally, many component pieces of surgical and N95 masks were sourced from China, so non-Chinese manufacturers had difficulty procuring the necessary supplies to continue production.
Coordinated effort from the FDA, NIOSH, and OSHA allowed businesses to pivot and potentially reuse masks and other materials to reduce the need for new masks. Additionally, American manufacturers like 3M and Honeywell were able to dramatically increase their production of N95 masks. Despite overcoming some of these challenges, businesses will likely face new ones as coronavirus cases increase in the winter. NSC recommends that businesses:
- Track PPE burn rates, expiration dates, and usage metrics to effectively manage their inventory and adjust their supply chain needs accordingly.
- Maintain intimate knowledge of PPE vendor networks that are diversified across countries and localities.
- Invest in technology to supplement shortages like 3D printing so companies can potentially manufacture their own PPE supplies if needed.
Similar to the regulatory changes made for PPE supply chain needs, the EPA also made necessary changes for disinfectant manufacturers to change certain chemical ingredients to alternate suppliers without having to obtain prior approval. Although chemical manufacturers and suppliers were able to get back on track quicker than PPE manufacturers, the current increase in coronavirus cases may cause spikes in need and rupture the supply chain again. Therefore, NSC recommends that businesses:
- Identify alternative suppliers for cleaning and disinfecting products that have diverse sourcing of raw materials.
- Determine which surfaces need to be cleaned (e.g., low-touch areas) versus disinfected (e.g., high-touch areas).
- Develop alternatives for commercially available disinfectants like home remedy solutions of alcohol or bleach water.
Although businesses should always take the necessary steps to shore up their supply chains, especially for PPE and cleaning chemicals, the best strategy for reducing COVID-19 risk exposure and limiting the burden on supply chains is to reduce the need to use it at all. Remote work arrangement, shift staggering, and engineering controls can go far in reducing or eliminating COVID-19 workplace risks without relying on PPE.
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