Tackling a Mammoth Task in Pandemic Mode
The rapid global spread of the coronavirus is having extremely detrimental effects on our private and professional lives. At WACKER sites around the world, employees are working tirelessly to keep business running smoothly. They work on site in our labs and production facilities, but wherever possible from home. In this article, the members of the WACKER Health Services team at the Burghausen site describe how Covid has changed, and continues to dominate, their day-to-day work. With its resolute management of the pandemic, Health Services is protecting workers and enabling production to continue.
“The SARS-1 pandemic back in 2003 was already the trigger for us to update our pandemic management system,” explains Dr. Jürgen Commeßmann, a specialist in occupational and environmental medicine who heads up WACKER’s Health Services department. “In recent years, we have closely analyzed the potential effects of a pandemic and regularly adapted the preparedness plans in place at the Group’s sites.”
WACKER was thus in a position to limit the risks to employees and the company in the event of a crisis. “Still, the challenges are exceptionally big. For over a year now, I’ve spent up to 12 hours a day dealing with the pandemic,” says Commeßmann. He is in charge of the crisis-management team that, since the start of the pandemic, has been coordinating occupational-safety and infection-prevention measures worldwide in order to reduce the risk of infection and keep production running.
Health Services – Ready with Advice and Support 24/7
Health Services can be contacted around the clock, even at night, on weekends and on public holidays. The team advises individual employees on Covid symptoms, traces contacts in cases of infection and has a range of measures at its disposal that have helped break the chains of infection. “It is vital to disrupt every chain of infection and to stop the virus from entering the company premises and individual workplaces,” says Commeßmann. “We’ve done very well with that – thanks to all our employees, who have been highly disciplined and have complied with all the distancing and hygiene rules.”
As Commeßmann underscores: “Our job calls for constant vigilance, an agile mindset and a permanent presence. We believe our biggest challenge is to make our workplaces as safe as possible by ensuring that employees suspected of being infected don’t turn up for work in the first place.” That is why his team advises suspected cases while they are still at home and decide when they no longer pose a risk of infecting others. “No one need fear infection at work. We are confident that our basic rules for distancing, hygiene and mask-wearing are effective,” adds site physician Wolfgang Großwieser.
Stay at Home if You Have Symptoms. Keep Your Distance. Wear a Mask. Ventilate Rooms Regularly.
That makes the team the most important point of contact for any Covid-related questions and especially for suspected cases of infection. The Health Services employees have been in constant crisis mode and on red alert since early 2020. Regular working hours? “That’s hardly possible anymore,” as Großwieser says. “Since February we have been virtually inundated with employee queries about the coronavirus.” The colleagues from Health Services – whether medical assistants, physiotherapists, administrative staff or site physicians – all have a role to play in handling the flood of inquiries. On top of answering questions, they also have numerous other pandemic-related tasks to perform, including testing and, since May 2021, administering vaccinations at the Burghausen site. Not to mention the work generated by the many administrative regulations surrounding Covid, such as tracing contacts, notifying the health authorities and amending workplace hazard analyses to include pandemic-relevant criteria.
Avoiding Chains of Infection
Between the outbreak of the pandemic and the end of June 2021, Health Services dealt with over 12,000 inquiries and requests for guidance, mainly over the phone. Employees ask for advice on what to do or want to find out the details of a coronavirus infection. “In most cases, people want to know the right way to respond if they themselves or someone they live with are infected,” says Großwieser. When they encounter a suspected case of infection, he and his Health Services colleagues need a lot of time to carefully and systematically identify all the other employees that might be affected and to take the necessary action in the plants. If an employee has had to quarantine or been written off sick by a doctor, Health Services has to clarify when it is safe for all concerned for that person to return to work.
Crisis-Management Team – in “Covid Mode” Every Day
Apart from advising individual employees, Health Services also forms an integral part of the crisis-management team that meets online at short notice to discuss the latest developments – after all, rapid changes are possible during a pandemic, with incidence rates fluctuating and new mutations arising. The crisis-management team plans day by day, one step at a time. Its planning gives rise to new rules and regulations, with Health Services having to create or update measures and recommendations for employees, e.g. hygiene rules or advice on the correct use of face masks.
The department also has to conduct systematic Covid tests. This is particularly important at the Burghausen site, where numerous employees who live in Austria have to cross the border into Germany every day to get to work. As of the end of June, a total of around 4,000 Covid tests had been performed at Burghausen, many of them by paramedic Kurt Leidinger. In a full PPE outfit, he takes swabs and evaluates the tests before his colleagues can enter their plants. Highly motivated, he performs this task very carefully – and always with the good humor needed to make this time-consuming, but unavoidable, routine more bearable for everyone. After all, as he says: “Our systematic testing protects the health of all employees. We are doing our bit to ensure the pandemic does not disrupt production.”
“With regular tests, we are protecting the health of all employees and doing our bit to ensure that the pandemic does not disrupt production.”
Since spring this year, the company has provided gratis self-swabbing tests to all employees in Germany who attend work at production facilities or offices. These enable employees who display no symptoms to test whether they are nevertheless infected and, if so, to take additional protective measures before it’s too late.
In Action Around the Clock
Health Services has adapted its personnel planning so that it can also uphold its regular outpatient and emergency medical services around the clock in this exceptional situation. “We have set up emergency services so that one of our site physicians is always on standby – 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” says Großwieser. “Paramedics are on call at all times to step in if a colleague falls ill or some other bottleneck arises.”
Franziska Birke belongs to the team of paramedics at Burghausen. Even during the pandemic, the team ensures every patient receives the best possible medical attention. She and her colleagues provide patients with efficient treatment while complying with all hygiene and safety regulations – because working in close contact with patients does pose a risk of infection. “Everyone visiting the outpatient unit is immediately given an FFP2 respiratory mask if they don’t already have one. It goes without saying that we wear suitable protective equipment. That way we can protect our patients and ourselves,” she emphasizes.
On the Safe Side, Professionally
Besides their work at the outpatient unit, Franziska Birke and her coworkers carry out their paramedic duties on site. Once again the rule is: “Our, and our patients’, health is what’s most important. That’s why we wear FFP2 respiratory masks every time we respond to an emergency situation, as do our colleagues at the fire department.”
Has the pandemic changed how she feels about her work? Her answer is an emphatic ‘no’: “I’ve worked in emergency medical health care for many years and am professional enough to handle difficult situations. My colleagues and I have been working with protective equipment since the outbreak of the pandemic and I don’t feel any more at risk now than before.”
Vaccinations – the Light at the End of the Tunnel
“Thanks to the vaccination campaign, we can see light at the end of the tunnel,” says Jürgen Commeßmann. “Only if as many people as possible are vaccinated will we be able to get Covid infections under control.” And he’s convinced: “Herd immunity, as it is called, is the key to a return to normality.” Health Services has launched a campaign to provide details about all relevant aspects of the Covid vaccination and is encouraging employees to take an active interest in the subject. Employees can, for example, download a brochure from the WACKER intranet in which Health Services provides answers to FAQs – e.g. about possible reactions to the vaccine shot, monitoring and the properties of the vaccines approved for use in Germany.
Health Services set up its own vaccination center at the Burghausen site back in spring. Things really started rolling at the end of April: WACKER’s Burghausen plant was selected along with nine other Bavarian companies to participate in a Bavarian-government model project in which site physicians are allowed to administer Covid vaccinations. A key criterion for selection was that the companies needed their employees to work on site and thus the option of working from home was hardly available to workers or not at all.
Staying Fit with Exercise Breaks While Working from Home
Health Services launched virtual exercise breaks in the spring of 2021, inviting staff working in Germany to participate in fitness classes that relax the body and strengthen the musculoskeletal system. “The physical exercise so important to health has been curtailed during the coronavirus pandemic,” notes Birgit Stade, company nurse at HQ in Munich. “The live-stream classes are an easy and efficient way for employees to introduce exercise into their daily work routine.” With these training sessions, which have replaced the many pre-Covid in-person courses and action days, Health Services encourages employees to
- increase their ability to relax,
- boost their concentration and motivation,
- prevent problems with their feet, legs and veins,
- and – importantly for those who spend their days behind a screen – alleviate or even preempt back, neck and shoulder pain.
“We are all hoping for a healthy, normal life after the pandemic,” says Commeßmann. “Then our diverse health and prevention program will once again be held on-site.” But as the flexible, easily accessible virtual world does have its advantages, Health Services will continue to offer digital fitness formats going forward. Long before the outbreak of the coronavirus, staff could sign up for videos with gymnastics sessions, allowing them to receive e-mail reminders to integrate exercise and relaxation into their daily work routine up to three times a day, with exercises tailored precisely to their needs.