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“It’s Personal” - Keeping Healthcare Workers Safe

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The people providing healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic need help to stay safe. Serving on the frontlines every day, their needs are growing by the hour. The magnitude of the global crisis can be overwhelming, and yet we all see the impact locally, no matter where we are. To meet the needs of healthcare workers, individuals and companies everywhere are stepping up and jumping in to do what they can — as quickly as possible.

“It’s personal,” says James Ludwig, Steelcase vice president of design and engineering. “We all have a neighbor who is a nurse, or a colleague’s wife who is an EMT or an ER doctor living down the block. This is about delivering on a promise we make to each other because we are part of a community.”

Bob Ruthven felt that communal pull when, on a Sunday in the middle of March, he emailed out an offer. “I just want you all to know that I would flex my job to do just about anything if you need help in any area that’s in emergency mode,” he wrote. With a 24-year Steelcase background in operations, supply chain, manufacturing engineering, product development and materials research, he was tapped for a crisis response team. “It’s the best thing I ever did. At least, I can do a little bit to help. It makes a big difference in my day and my night. And I’m surrounded by people (at a social distance) who feel the same way.”

Within days of that offer, Rob Heitmeier, vice president of Steelcase Health and Education, got a call from Spectrum Health, a Michigan health system. They needed transparent screens to safeguard the employees assigned to screen patients before entering their medical facilities. The Operations team responded in three hours with a prototype of what’s now called Steelcase Separation Screens. They reviewed the design with Spectrum Health and immediately kicked into production, making 100 screens.

“That was on Thursday,” said Heitmeier. “Then, all weekend, we started applying what we know about healthcare environments and the user experience to create the next generation — lighter, more cleanable and able to serve different applications like on the floor or a desk. Within a week, we were in full production.”

At the same time as screens were being developed, operations teams in the plants were prototyping face masks for healthcare workers. And Gordon Peterson, principal engineer, who had also volunteered to help was looking into face shields for healthcare employees. He spent the weekend building prototypes in his garage. By Thursday, they were shipping the first 500 face shields to Mercy Health in Grand Rapids.

“Every drop in the ocean counts,’” says Ludwig. “We have a specific set of skills and capabilities that help us decide where we can make the most meaningful contribution.” Steelcase manufacturing teams work with fabric every day and so they have fabric cutting machines, access to materials, sewing skills and the ability to scale. “When you think about a face mask, it’s shaped like a tiny seat cushion cover. And, face shields — the forehead bumper is seat foam. We have skilled tradespeople who can turn concepts into reality in rapid fashion. Nobody asked ‘How are we going to do this?’ we just started prototyping,” says Ludwig.

At a time like this, speed is critical. So, how do you get to the correct answer in a crisis when you don’t always have all the information? “Our answer was to get the right people on daily calls and make sure we left those calls with as many ‘Yes’ responses as possible. And, then we made ourselves available from morning to night. There was never ‘Can it wait until tomorrow?’ We didn’t want to lose a day,” says Ludwig.

Ruthven says his calls are happening hourly as the production of screens, face shields and face masks are scaled up and other needs are explored. “Our operations mantra is safety, quality, delivery and cost — in that order. It’s never been more true as we prioritize safety for our community, our customers and ourselves,” says Ruthven.

Heitmeier points to a clear focus on what’s important. “There’s never been a time in my 26 years at Steelcase that I’ve been more clear about what matters. Everyone is rallying around this effort while continuing to seek out ways to serve our customers’ essential needs in hard hit areas like New York, Michigan and beyond.”

In this spirit, Steelcase shared the designs for face masks and face shields to anyone who wants to help. The goal is to give other organizations and individuals a head start as they join this effort to produce more shields and masks faster and help to protect those who are caring for others.

“We want to share what we’re doing and how we’re doing it incredibly fast,” says Ludwig. “When the mission is clear and the problem is pressing, barriers melt away in insignificance.”

HBi provides our customers with a variety of solutions for you and your business in our post-COVID-19 world.