The vast majority of Personal Protective Equipment sold in the United States is made in China. If Swine Flu progresses to pandemic levels, there will be devastating consequences on the availability of safety equipment that are used daily in the American workplace.
Online PR News – 03-May-2009 – – Bethlehem, PA - Over the course of the last two decades, manufacturers in search of cost savings and responding to competitive pressure have moved production of Safety Equipment to Asia. "When unexpected events like SARS or Swine Flu occur, we are exposed to the devastating possibility that American industry and healthcare may shut down due to the unavailability of basic safety equipment like disposable gloves, Respirators and face masks."
The primary concern here is that these products are made in China. China has its own unique sets of risks due to huge population density which will contribute to rapid human-to-human transmission of a virus such as swine flu. It's not too far fetched to imagine that the Chinese government - with a recent memory of being accused of a slow reaction to SARS - would respond with demanding that China-made safety equipment be used to serve a Chinese population. Beyond redirection of production from export to the United States to domestic Chinese consumption we may see another concern from US regulators: Product may be contaminated by sick workers who make these products in subcontracted manufacturing factories (only the very largest players own their own facility in China). Because of the long lead time associated with bringing product from China any disruption may take as long as six months to normalize.
This scenario is actually playing out right now: Manufacturers of respirators and face masks are going on allocation. Buyers will likely see supplies tightening for several months as consumers are panic buying and industrial users who have lived through SARS in 2003 are starting to hoard.
Other products that are at risk:
- Disposable garments (such as Labcoats, Coveralls and Isolation Gowns) : In the event of a pandemic, emergency response personnel will require disposable garments to perform public area sanitizing, medical intervention and multiple other tasks. Unavailability of this product group will be a major concern.
- Disposable Gloves: Nitrile and Latex exam gloves are among the the most commonly used safety products. Again, because these products are predominantly made in China and are exposed to the risks described above.
What actions can be taken?
Lock up currently available inventory immediately from disposables suppliers. Do not rely on suppliers to be able to fulfill your requirements based upon inventory that is currently downstream and not in-house. Swine Flu has not yet hit Asian population centers but it has reached WHO Level 5 status so it may be a matter of time. That being said, Asian nations are taking extraordinary precautions to prevent an outbreak and may be able to avoid the above scenarios. However Respirators and Face Masks will definitely be a problem in the short term.