Cement plant and company readiness for the COVID-19 pandemic

Published 24 March 2020

The cement industry must now prepare for the global COVID-19 pandemic

As this extraordinary Technical Forum is being written, the world is reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Italy, Spain and France are in complete lock-down with citizens required to remain in their homes. The UK and the United States are not far behind needing to impose such drastic restrictions.

In the UK sweeping restrictions were introduced on Monday, 23 March. All social gatherings in restaurants, public houses, gyms and leisure centres have been banned, with those and many retail shops having now closed their doors. Countries have closed their borders to try to control and prevent the spread of the virus, while the Emirates airline has suspended all its passenger flights until further notice.

Some travellers arriving in countries that still have open borders are being required to immediately go into 14-days quarantine. In a few cases, their movements being tracked electronically by way of a bracelet tag to ensure compliance. In these drastic circumstances how can cement plants ready themselves for the impact of the virus?

We can separate the appropriate actions into immediate responses to enhance readiness, and longer-term preparations and planning to promote readiness for such a pandemic.

Immediate responses

The first point to make is that every cement company and plant will have to follow the instructions and requirements of their local government. These will naturally vary between countries and regions. It is part of the role of cement companies to support local governments in their attempts to control the pandemic, but it is also possible to take the lead from governments around the world in formulating our immediate responses to the pandemic.

Personal hygiene, such as regularly washing and sterilising our hands, is the first step in avoiding the virus. Washing hands and personal hygiene should be normal practice, of course, but this can be promoted strongly on the cement plant with additional facilities made available. Dr Clark knows too many cement plants where the personnel washing facilities are aged and inadequate. These showcase the cement company’s commitment to their personnel and their hygiene. If modernisation and cleaning up of such facilities was to come out of the virus, this would be a good thing. Management need to take the lead in developing hygiene practices in the same manner as they lead in promoting safety practices.

For many cement plants, being open to educational and familiarisation visits is part of fostering good community relations. However, since we are instructed not to visit family and friends, these are not normal times. Therefore, it is entirely legitimate and appropriate to suspend and close the plant to visits for the duration of the pandemic.

All but essential travel within countries is banned and where possible, we are told to work from home. Operating, maintaining and managing a cement plant do not lend themselves to working from home. Plant equipment is operated from remote control rooms, but these are within the factory. Operators will need to travel to the plant to access those control rooms. In addition, maintaining the cement factory equipment requires working on the equipment in situ or dismantling it to send components to be refurbished. Therefore, maintenance personnel will need to travel to the factory to perform this work. Operations and maintenance management also need to travel to the plant to fulfil their role on a daily basis. However, commercial and business management is often remote from the plant. This minimises the requirement for commercial and business management to visit the cement plant.

Social interactions are to be minimised and gatherings limited to a maximum of two people, excluding those from the same household. The operation of a cement plant is often a solitary role shared by many people on different shifts around the 24h working day. Driving a loader or haul truck in the quarry is a solitary task, as is operating the crusher, mills or kilns, or attending the conveyor belt strings and patrolling the plant equipment. Break and meal times are not usually solitary events, but in these times of the pandemic they need to be. Canteens and mess rooms should be closed with food delivered to the plant operators at their place of work. This will bring additional hygiene requirements. When people are sharing the same workplace, such as various people on different shifts, then inter-shift hygiene becomes the responsibility of each individual operator. The workplace should be left in the same hygienic, sterilised state as each person would expect to find it when they begin their shift.

Some actions on a cement plant cannot be solitary for safety reasons. Intervening in the process to clear blockages in chutes or preheaters is potentially dangerous and should not be undertaken individually. In these circumstances, personal protective equipment (PPE) should be worn whenever such interventions are taking place and this forms a barrier between operators working together.

Communication and training will be vital to work safely while minimising interactions. Such procedures should be reviewed in light of the pandemic. Maintaining factory equipment in situ also involves tasks that require people to work together. Procedures and equipment need to be reviewed to minimise the risk of infection between people working together.

In Dr Clark’s experience, the working day on most cement facilities begins with a meeting of the plant and departmental management to review the events of the preceding day and plan the actions of the coming day(s). In too many instances, plant and departmental management spend considerable amounts of time attending management meetings. This is not appropriate during the current period. There are many communications technologies available that eliminate the need for face-to-face interaction with the attendant danger of infection.

If the pandemic results in fewer and more focussed meetings then that will be an improvement arising from a very unwelcome challenge. Of course, there is still the requirement for one-to-one meetings and for relationships to be built up within cement plant management teams. However, these should have been built up before the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic so that they are strong enough to survive when regular face-to-face meetings have to be curtailed.

As established, travel to the cement plant is a necessity for the operators, maintenance staff and management of the cement plant. Travelling from the plant may also be necessary to
visit suppliers, local authorities or customers. Again, separation of manufacturing from the commercial and business management of a cement company will minimise the need for such travel. This does not mean that such external visits are unnecessary, just that the cement plant management do not need to make the visits themselves.

Perhaps most importantly, is that the cement company sales people continue to visit customers to secure sales of cement. No doubt the pandemic will result in lower construction activity and reduced sales of cement, so securing whatever sales can be achieved will be critical for company survival. It is crucial to establish how this can be implemented while still minimising external visits by sales personnel. The digitisation of the sales and delivery process can help in this process. Admittedly, such digitisation is not going to happen in response to the current pandemic. Such sales digitisation takes months and years to realise, as does any type of digital transformation, by which time we all hope this situation will be behind us. However, the pandemic could prompt company management to launch such digitisation initiatives.

Finally, we are told that if we suffer symptoms such as a dry cough, sore throat or high temperature then we should self-isolate at home for 14 days. Therefore, company and plant management have to prepare for some of their key staff having to self-isolate and be away from work for protracted periods at very short notice. A cement company or cement plant should already be prepared for such a scenario as plants cannot be reliant on any individual. Knowledge needs to be captured in documented procedures and human capital needs to be developed via training and succession planning, such that there is no reliance on any individual. Everyone needs to have a ready replacement within the organisation.

Longer-term preparations and planning

The directors of a cement company are responsible for identifying and managing risks such as the COVID-19 pandemic. It is an external, strategic risk to a cement company and cement plant. The first stage of managing risks is to identify them.

The second stage is to assess the potential impact of the risk individually and in combination. For example, what will be the impact if one, two or three of the kiln master burners (control room operators) have to self-isolate for 14 days at the same time? What will be the impact if both the plant manager and his deputy have to self-isolate for 14 days concurrently? What will be the impact if some of these or other key personnel succumb to the virus? The impacts of both a sales collapse and a government-ordered shutdown also need to be considered.

The third stage is assessing the likelihood of the COVID-19 risk actually impacting the cement company or plant. Dr Clark would suggest that it is prudent to expect that it will indeed be impacted, simply because it is better to overestimate the likelihood than underestimate it. Dr Clark’s experience is that if something can go wrong, then it probably will.

The fourth stage is to develop plans for controlling the risk in line with the cement company's risk appetite. The company needs to look at how the likelihood of the risk occurring can be reduced, while also considering the potential impact if it does occur. Who will be responsible for these risk management actions? We have already looked at how to reduce the likelihood of COVID-19 impacting a cement plant. These risk analysis, assessment and management responses needs to be prioritised and recorded in a ‘risk register’.

Finally, the COVID-19 risk, and indeed all the risks in the risk register, need to be regularly reviewed. The COVID-19 risk should currently be reviewed on a daily basis. Has the likelihood or potential impact of the virus changed? An outbreak in the immediate vicinity to the cement plant would change the likelihood. One of more members of staff self-isolating would also change this. Questions need to be asked about if the risk management plans remain sufficiently robust and relevant, or whether new risks have emerged. Does the prioritisation of risks in the risk register need to be changed? Hopefully, at some time in the near future, the priority of the COVID-19 risk will diminish. We are not there yet.