As Louisiana’s chemical plants embrace recommended safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among their workers, many are also grappling with reduced staff, quarantined employees and supply chain disruptions, which are leading to expected declines in production.
It’s happening at a time when the facilities—whose employees are deemed by President Donald Trump as “essential critical infrastructure workers” and thereby exempted from Gov. John Bel Edwards’ stay-at-home mandate—are helping produce medications, oxygen for ventilators and other supplies that are critical in efforts to treat COVID-19.
“First, we’re trying to protect our employees, figuring out how we can operate while practicing social distancing,” says Greg Bowser, president of the Louisiana Chemical Association. “So a number [of chemical companies] are preparing to operate with minimum crews. Depending on how long this lasts, a couple of them plan to reduce their output.”
He says many plants are encouraging telecommuting where possible. So far, none have shut down in Louisiana, though Bowser says some have already cut back on production by as much as 50%.
As a result, he says, many have included in their contingency plans the possibility of shutting down, should the outbreak worsen.
It’s a worst-case scenario, to be sure, but it’s also not as remote a reality as one might think. There have been at least two plants in Louisiana where employees have tested positive for COVID-19, says Bowser. When that happens, not only are the diagnosed employees isolated; everyone who came into contact with them is including fellow crew members, further diminishing the number of on-site employees, who must then work longer shifts.
“How long can this go on?” Bowser says. “We’ve never been in a situation where, overnight, the pause button was hit on our economy.”
With poor demand pushing up supply, ExxonMobil reportedly scaled back on production at its Baton Rouge refinery, with the number of contract workers cut by 1,800 on Friday.
In a prepared statement, ExxonMobil spokesperson Megan Manchester says the company’s Baton Rouge area facilities will remain open and expects to continue plant operations needed to deliver fuel and other products such as those used to produce IV bags, ventilator machines, hospital gowns and medical face masks, as well as hand sanitizer. Manchester also notes that social distancing has been implemented in all work activities.
In a prepared statement, a Shell spokesperson says the company’s sites are taking measures to reduce the risk of virus spread within their facilities and are implementing telecommuting where possible, but did not specify as to how production was being impacted. Shell is also “reducing the amount of interactions across the site and within the units.”
BASF Group has previously voiced concerns about the issue, but was unable to be reached for comment before this afternoon’s deadline.