On the day the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic, INEOS took decisive action. At that time, just over 4,500 people worldwide had died of this new, invisible killer and many governments were resisting national lockdowns, with some dismissing the virus as a ‘common cold’.
But INEOS, which now operates in 29 countries including China where the virus is believed to have originated, was alarmed.
“The fact that we are a global company was one of our strengths,” said Jeff Seed, SHE Director at INEOS. “Our Asian sites gave us a feel about what to expect and how we could potentially be impacted by the virus.”
The message from Asia was clear: if you want to keep your plants and businesses running, protect your staff now.
As a global producer of essential chemicals that the world would soon need more than ever, that advice was taken to the very heart of INEOS.
“Safety has always been our top priority, and that includes operating in a way that is safe for all our operating teams,” said Jeff. “Our excellent safety performance record is based upon having clear procedures and rules.”
A COVID contingency plan was swiftly agreed. Each business set up strict safety protocols to ensure their own employees stayed safe whilst continuing to operate the plants.
All office-based staff – all over the world – were told to work from home.
Businesses were told to identify critical personnel to operate and maintain the plants.
“That was critical and we cannot thank enough those people who impressively kept our plants running safely,” said Simon Laker, the INEOS Group Operations Director.
In addition, all non-essential work on the plants was postponed and all non-essential travel was banned.
“If we had not acted quickly, we could have allowed the virus to enter our workplaces and made a lot of our employees sick very quickly,” said Jeff. “Not only do we want our employees to stay healthy, but this would also have taken them out of the workplace and closed the factories and businesses down.”
Jeff was with Simon at INEOS’ Green Lake facility in America when INEOS Capital asked them to start preparing for the sites to continue working through the pandemic.
“At the time we really did not know what the impact was going to be on our operations across the world,” he said. “But we were determined to continue to operate in a way that was safe for all of our operating teams.”
In the event of an outbreak of COVID-19, INEOS was prepared to shut down factories.
Weekly calls were set up between the HR Directors of each business to monitor the situation by site and country. Regular board meetings within each business were also held to ensure each business could act quickly as required.
In the UK, INEOS’ critical workers were regularly tested.
“That was a really powerful way to keep ahead of the virus,” said Jeff.
INEOS’ actions meant not one of its factories had to close, except where mandated by country regulations.
“Our strict procedures and rapid action ensured that we have kept positive cases under control and enabled our employees to stay safe whilst continuing to be able to run our operations,” said HR Director Jill Dolan.
Staff, who displayed symptoms of COVID-19, were told not to come to work. Since testing regimes varied by country, it was not always possible for these staff to be tested.
“That’s one of the reasons why the precise numbers of positive cases in INEOS will never be known,” said Jill. “But this approach was key to keeping any spread of the virus to a minimum.”
INEOS also ensured that those, who needed to self-isolate due to close contact with another individual, did so to keep themselves and their families safe.
INEOS, though, did not just manage to keep its own operations running.
Its early action meant it was also able to step up to meet the unprecedented, global demand for chemicals desperately needed to slow the spread of COVID-19 and help treat those infected.
Production was ramped up at many INEOS sites with INEOS-owned INOVYN’s plants across Europe running continuously to produce sodium hypochlorite (household bleach), which had been recognised by the World Health Organisation and UNICEF as the best and quickest way to kill COVID-19 on hard surfaces.
The company also built six factories in less than 10 days each to produce hand sanitiser and supplied millions of bottles to thousands of hospitals free of charge.
By diverting resources away from non-essential work at sites in America, mainland Europe and the UK, INEOS kept the flow of chemicals to those making vital medical materials, disinfectants and equipment.
Countries were also rightly concerned about protecting their drinking water supplies.
In the US, utilities companies needed INEOS’ acrylamide and polyacrylamide to purify America’s water and UK water companies relied on INEOS to provides the chlorine necessary to keep 98% of Britain’s water safe to drink.
“We acted sooner than many other big businesses because there was a public safety issue as well as a business interruption issue,” said Jeff.
INEOS, though, knows the pandemic is far from over despite hopes that a vaccine will be ready soon.
“We may not be out of the woods but the fact that we have managed to navigate it so far, keeping our employees safe and our plants running, is testament to the hard work and commitment of all of our employees,” said Tom Crotty, INEOS’ Communications Director.