There is no vaccine to prevent the coronavirus yet, and that’s true for both people and businesses. The best thing we can all do is prepare, and try to prevent contamination and exposure.

That has specific meanings for your team, leaders, and your warehouse.

ShipStream is looking at those three considerations right now and helping companies determine some of the best responses to supply chain impacts, while also reducing the risk to your people. The best response is to be prepared ahead of time. So, here are seven steps you can take right now to safeguard your warehouse and warehouse management systems against the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

Work Remotely: Help Sick Employees Stay Home

Warehouses are tight quarters and often come with a lot of dust, sawdust, cardboard debris, and other particulate matter that leads to coughs and sneezes even when everyone is feeling great. Unfortunately, warehouses are active places and it will become too hot for employees to wear surgical gowns, respirators, face masks, and other high-grade equipment to filter the air they breathe. That means you’re facing an increased risk from any person who may be carrying COVID 19.

Protect yourself with the simplest method possible: Let sick employees go home and stay there. You might face a near-term slowdown if you can’t replace the labor immediately, but it prevents a large scale shutdown that would occur if multiple people came down with the virus.

Here’s your takeaway: When any employee feels even mildly sick, document it, and then send them home and to get some medical care. Note when they arrived and left, and who they might’ve interacted with while there. Include partners and non-staff in this list too — think about anyone who may have come to your loading dock.

If your team is going to miss out on pay, they might be tempted to come in anyway. That puts you all at risk — and the harm this will cause to people and your pocketbook far outweighs the cost of any additional paid sick days.

Identify and Control Access Areas

Most warehouses are connected to main offices and other buildings where non-warehouse staff work. Every additional person interacting with your team is an added risk. If you can send any of these teams or people home and have them work remotely, do so.

Many sectors, such as marketing and sales, can work remotely thanks to software and tools that only need an Internet connection. At the same time, executives and leadership can accomplish most of their tasks from anywhere — essentially anyone who travels and works regularly can likely keep working from their own home.

For people who cannot work remotely, limit their activities and interactions. And don’t let them in your warehouse. If you have a shared breakroom, set up additional spaces in empty offices or conference areas. Consider getting temporary refrigerators or moving existing ones.

You want to effectively quarantine teams apart. While you can’t eliminate everyone’s interactions within their groups, you can reduce exposure between teams and give your warehouse and other operations their best chance at staying healthy.

Clean Deliveries and Watch for Contamination

There’s a mix of good and bad news for your shipments. What’s good is that there seems to be minimal risk of contaminated products so far. There haven’t been any reports we’ve found in terms of food or imported goods infecting people, so production-based exposure may be minimal and the long shipping times for ocean freight could give further protection.

However, groups are warning that there is a potential for “smear infections” to spread — though it notes that this is only for a short period “due to the relatively low stability of coronaviruses in the environment.”

So, what you’ll want to do is keep an eye on where there are current coronavirus outbreaks and sanitize the crates and packages or products that come from these regions. It’s a smart way to address the concern of any short-lived exposure.

Learn the routes your goods take to get to you as well. Both route and people will impact you. For instance, most ocean freight isn’t a risk itself, but air cargo could be “fresh” enough for a smear infection to be possible. However, either could face increased risks if they passed through a location (whether it’s a city, port, or railyard, etc.) where there has been an outbreak.

When in doubt, disinfect.

If you’re not sure how to start cleaning, look to relevant federal resources. The CDC recently updated their list of products that can help fight coronavirus and others, including who makes them and the EPA registration number so you can more easily order the exact product.

Practice your Emergency Scenarios Within Your Warehouse

Here are a few big questions to ask your warehouse management and company leadership:

  • How many people have to call in sick for us to fall behind?
  • What suppliers can or can’t be replaced?
  • How long can cash reserves last?
  • If product demand rises, what do we need to do to meet it?
  • If product demand drops, what other revenue avenues do we have?
  • And, if we think there’s been a contamination or exposure in our warehouse, what do we do?

There are a lot of business-process asks in that list, because much of the impact will be felt up and down the supply chain. We’re already seeing cost changes for freight and less availability at some ports, so you want management to start thinking about how the business will respond to the virus.

For you in the warehouse, the final question is the biggest: what do we do if we think the coronavirus is here?

The full list depends on your location. We’re located in the U.S., so we’re following CDC guidance with our suggestions below. Beyond teaching people to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds and providing soap and alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60-95% alcohol, you’ll want to clean all surfaces that people touch regularly.

But, if you expect someone has been exposed to the virus or is sick with it, here are some emergency steps:

  1. Don’t let anyone leave the jobsite and go home.
  2. Separate sick employees. If possible, send people to individual locations.
  3. Call 911 and contact the authorities.
  4. Contact your healthcare provider to determine if you need to do any additional reporting to ensure staff gets care.
  5. Notify leadership so that they can tell other employees not to come in to work.
  6. Create a list of everyone who was on-site at the time and their contact information.
  7. Follow local healthcare orders to get everyone tested.
  8. Discuss with medical professionals how long you should keep people away from your facility.
  9. When it is safe, clean everything as well as possible. The virus is detectable up to three hours in aerosols, up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.
  10. Have leadership discuss the situation with partners, customers, and other members of your supply chain. Explain what happened, any risks they may face, and how you’ve taken steps to prevent future risk.

Before anything goes wrong, you want a plan for those steps. Warehouse management should already be reading up on healthcare policies and contamination procedures. Identify where employees can stay comfortably if they need to be on-site for an extended period of time. Make sure you’ve got complete rosters for every shift and consider policies like not letting people take their breaks off site for the time being.

Check Inventory and Start Sourcing Alternatives for your Supply Chain

Map upstream suppliers and move through as many tiers as you can. You want to know where your goods are coming from, both companies and locations, and start planning accordingly. Start looking for additional suppliers for both raw materials and finished goods, preventing potential product shortfalls and bottlenecks.

You can use tools like ShipStream to get a picture of your live inventory and share this data with your partners too. That helps you be part of customer solutions when they’re concerned about their own supply chains.

As soon as possible, run demand forecasts and projections. Then, stock up. Find additional supplies now to prevent running out if you think there’s a potential disruption to any partner. Consider looking for local sources as well as those that are regionally distinct from your current providers. The broader you can spread your resources — not only where they’re produced but the lanes they’ll travel to get to you — the less likely you are to be impacted on every line.

Your goal is to be lean by being protected. The coronavirus outbreak can be a good heads-up for many who aren’t designed to be proactive. Look for areas where you can manage the crisis and become a value-add partner. Finding second sources will minimize your risk but can also ensure you have backup capacity and supply so you’re not facing a major disruption.

It’s a balancing act between lowering risks and raising admin and storage costs, but you might find it to be worthwhile. At the heart of every preparation is data, which is why our platform focuses so heavily on collection and utilizing of the information that’s constantly being generated in your warehouse.

Review Contracts for “Force Majeure” Clauses Relevant to your Warehouse Management Systems

Warehouses also need to prepare their finances for coronavirus impacts. This is beyond just delays to your orders and fulfillment.

There are already reports of Chinese suppliers notifying companies of intent to invoke “force majeure” clauses. These are designed to protect companies in the event of non-performance when things are outside of their control. In the past, they’ve been used largely for natural disasters, but they can also apply both to disease outbreaks and when a government takes action that impacts their business.

The Covid-19 outbreak has already led to more than 125 certificates being issued by the Chinese government — reporting of exact numbers varies — and these certificates are generally recognized by most trade and customs bodies.

They don’t eliminate your ability to negotiate or sue down the line. But their issuance is a demonstration that short-term impacts to finances and budgets are likely to occur due to failed delivers, and your ability to recoup those losses may be significantly delayed. Look through your supplier contracts for these and other related clauses to get a handle on how cashflow might be limited in multiple avenues.

Monitor Your Employees: Scan, Limit, and Exclude Visitors to Your Warehouse

“Temperature guns” are handheld body temperature scanners that aren’t regularly used in the warehouse, but it’s time to start. Scan everyone who comes in and send people home if they have a fever. Follow CDC guidance for risks.

Once that’s in place for staff, start doing it for every visitor. This includes all logistics management and supply chain partners, such as drivers and teams who may load or unload trucks. Mandate it for them and inspectors, auditors, clients, and anyone else who comes to your door.

While it isn’t always great for client or partner relations, turn away anyone who doesn’t need to be in your warehouse. Explain the risk and concern, and then avoid anyone who isn’t willing to follow that requirement.

While some consumer-facing goods are becoming limited, many medical suppliers note that temperature scanners are still available. Find a supplier near you to make your purchase and ask them for additional materials needed to protect and train employees who will operate these scanners.

Watch Your Hygiene in the Warehouse

Make hand sanitizer and cleaning products available to everyone. And for hand sanitizer, remember that it should be alcohol based and at least 60% alcohol. Have someone check sanitizing and cleaning stations regularly, ensuring you have sanitizer and soap available.

Be cautious of returns that have been opened and touched. There’s possible contamination here too, so set up areas just for returns. Handle these with gloves and clean the area often. It’ll likely mean adjusting your warehouse layout and impacting currenting picking lanes.

Clean everything, especially public areas, more frequently. Add these as tasks for appropriate staff. Our recommendation is every 4 hours for spaces like breakrooms, bathrooms, and common areas. If your warehouse has office space, give employees what they need to clean their workstations.

Final thoughts

Your supply chain is going to get much more complicated in the coming weeks and months. We’re already starting to see some limitations in air freight capacity, with further flight cancellations expected to ramp that up significantly. This will put pressure on rail capacity — and some scheduled trains have been cancelled due to COVID-19 too.

Nearly 100 transpacific departures have been cancelled so far, and we could see a lot of empty runs as demand drops or certain ports become unsafe. We’re hearing of multi-week delays for containers reaching some locations, especially in Europe.

Your daily operations will also be impacted in significant ways.

Train staff and encourage them to talk with leadership more. Have them share if they feel unwell or see someone who may be sick. Don’t punish reporting or anyone who is reported — keep the focus on staying healthy.

Financial stress may be on the horizon. Now is the time to start thinking lean and looking for new products, partners, and suppliers for your warehouse management system. We’ve built out a platform to help you do just that and can be one part of your solution. Integrating with suppliers and vendors is a first step, though we’ve also been able to help companies improve response times and mitigate risk.

It’s a complex conversation and topic, but we can be prepared together. To see what that means and we can help, get in touch and schedule a demo today.