Keeping it Cool

by Array


MM&D recently toured UPS’s campus in Burlington, Ontario. The three-building complex houses products stored at temperatures ranging from -25C to room temperature. Michael Power dons his earmuffs and goes inside.

There’s a clear and vitally important message all UPS employees receive when dealing with pharmaceutical and medical products handled at the company’s distribution centre in Burlington, Ontario. In fact, the message hangs from signs inside the DC for all to see: It’s not a package, it’s a patient.

The message is so clearly visible because compromising some of those products within the facility could mean compromising the health of the end users—patients who rely on medical products such as vaccines and other pharmaceuticals for their treatment and care. Reg Sheen, vice-president of operations at UPS Supply Chain Solutions, isn’t about to let that happen.

“This is the mantra that we as an organization—right from executive levels to the hourly folks on the floor—this is what we live and die by as far as our healthcare facility is concerned,” Sheen says. “We don’t treat every package as a package—we treat it as a patient. It’s actually going to somebody to help them with the medical issue they’re dealing with. That’s how we treat the handling of those products.”

The UPS Burlington facility is located just north of the Queen Elizabeth Way and within striking distance of international airports in Buffalo, Hamilton and Toronto. The campus is close to the major highway arteries in the Southern Ontario corridor. And with 44 healthcare clients across Canada, Sheen points out the decision to locate the facility in the heart of the Greater Toronto Area was a strategic one.

About six years ago, Sheen says UPS made the decision to invest in three of the company’s key strategic markets, one in Louisville, Kentucky, another in the Netherlands and a third in Burlington. The company invested $77 million in the Ontario location, which includes two buildings (called Building One and Building Three) owned by UPS. The company leased another building—known as Building Four—about four years ago. The original design of the campus included a Building Three on an adjacent piece of land that remains empty. Plans to build a 300,000-sqf facility on that land were shelved temporarily when the opportunity to lease Building Four came up, Sheen explains.

Height matters
Building One focuses mainly on consumer products, Sheen says. But the facility also has a small high-tech returns operation, as well as dealing with medical devices that don’t require specialized temperature controls. This is part of the facility boasts more than 100 dock doors and is where shipments are consolidated. Although it changes throughout the year, the operation can receive several hundred orders each day.

“It’s our largest building and supports a number of work streams,” says Maria Thomas, director of operations, distribution, at UPS Supply Chain Solutions. “But it also supports medical devices, which would be any components that aren’t pharmaceuticals; anything that doesn’t need a temperature controlled environment (like syringes or diabetic socks).”

An added draw of not storing and shipping these products through Building Two, which is dedicated to pharmaceutical products, is that it costs less, says Sheen. Facilities focused on pharmaceuticals and other temperature-controlled products simply cost more to use. “We utilize a better solution by using Building One for those medical device accounts,” he says.

One of the First things a visitor to Building One notices is the height of the ceiling that, with a clearance of 36.5 feet, allows for pallets to be stacked six high. That allows clients to take advantage of space in a more efficient manner, says Sheen. “It’s a 20-percent increase in the amount of storage space just by having that capability,” he notes.

Several products that go through Building One require specialized ticketing such as a specific label size or a price attached to the side of a box—a service UPS provides. UPS also handles the e-commerce for one of its clients (a home and garden centre) through the Burlington campus. If a customer of that client orders a product online from the client’s website, that product is shipped directly from the Burlington campus.

“If you go onto that website and you want to order a garden shed, that garden shed is coming out of our facility,” says Sheen. “No matter where you are in Canada, if you go onto that website, we’ll fulfill that order and get it to your home.”

A pool of part-time staff is kept available to deal with the peaks and valleys the facility experiences throughout the year. Staff is also cross-trained and employees rotate from one area of the facility to another, depending on where they’re needed most. Staff even shifts from the Burlington campus to other nearby UPS facilities, such as one in Oakville.

“We’re multi-client and multi-facility,” says Thomas. “We’re able to deploy our labour well. There’s a lot of seasonal variability and we’re able to move our resources around very effectively. Everyone is close by and trained in UPS policy. If one account doesn’t need so much labour, staff can be moved someplace else.”

Different products, different temperatures
Building Two consists of 200,000sq_ of space devoted to temperature-sensitive healthcare products such as vaccines. The building hosts areas held at different temperatures—from ambient, or room temperature (15 to 25C) to four coolers for products such as vaccines. Each cooler is maintained at as low as 2C and as high as 8C. The temperatures within the building are controlled by an automated system to ensure each section stays within its designated range. The products are timestamped to show how long they’ve been exposed to ambient temperatures.

The building also has two freezer chambers that are maintained at -20C. “Some products need that level of coldness, like certain blood products and certain medical supplies,” Thomas notes. The building supports 15 UPS clients and its 24-hour-a-day operation runs each week from Sunday night until Friday.

The building houses a vault (used to store narcotics and other products with street value or some risk attached) classified by Health Canada as Level 10—the highest security level for such a storage facility. A cage surrounds the vault and the client that uses the facility is licensed by Health Canada to store specific drugs there. Visitors and employees first walk through the cage’s gate before going through the vault’s doors. To meet the Level 10 security requirements, Health Canada says a vault must use a minimum level of electrical detection, an alarm system separate from the rest of the facility and doors, walls and a floor with specific thickness.

How thick? In UPS’s vaults, the concrete floors are three feet thick. The vault’s frame (made entirely of concrete) is built separately from both the rest of the building and the cage that surrounds it. It employs a tremor sensor to deal with situations such as a vehicle driven against the vault in an attempt to steal its contents. Other controls include a background check for employees working within the vault, and product codes, lot numbers and expiry dates are checked before a product leaves the vault towards its destination. Each of the building’s three vaults is dedicated to a single customer.

Vial in
While preparing three small vials for shipment, an employee checks the product against what’s on a piece of paper to ensure the lot number, expiry date and quantity are correct. While packing the vials, the employee puts two ice bricks in the bottom of the container before placing a cardboard divider on top. He then puts in a polar pack, then places the three vials in the box in a separate bag. He places a temperature-monitoring device inside before putting another divider on top. Two more ice bricks go on top, then bubble wrap. The process will keep the product between 2-8C for up to 48 hours.

The worker then time-stamps the box and places “do not freeze” stickers on its sides. A customer copy of the bill of lading is attached to the box, and the employee marks down the box’s order number. Each client has an individual packing procedure, and staff is trained regularly in how to pack boxes. Depending on the product, even pallets provide temperature monitoring to ensure a product stays within a certain range. Some of the pallets can keep a specific temperature for up to 48 hours (although the time varies among clients and products).

“Each customer has their own requirements on how to control the temperature along the way,” says Thomas. “When they ship them out there’s a temperature monitor on the shipment; it could be on the pallet or case itself for inbound shipments. Going out, it’s as close as possible to the product—the customer gives us their specs on how they want us to adhere.”

Lock and key
Given the number of high-value, high-risk products at the facility, UPS has heavy security in place, says Thomas, and the yards surrounding the campus are fully fenced. “We have a security guard on site 24/7, allowing trailers into the yard; and we have strategically placed, closed-circuit cameras,” she says.

Swipe access is needed for any part of the facility, whether it’s an office, warehouse or cooler, notes Thomas. That’s because so many of the products have the potential to be harmful, or are drugs with a street value. Some of the pharmaceuticals can be lifesaving and would take months to reproduce if they disappeared. “You can only access the area you need to access; if you need it for your work you’ll have access on your card,” she says.

The campus also has an automated system that monitors temperatures in the various areas of the campus, Thomas notes. If an area becomes warmer or cooler than it’s supposed to be, visual alarms such as red lights flash outside the coolers. There are also audio alarms, and employees are paged so they can respond to the temperature change. Each building employs a generator so temperatures remain where they should be in the event of a power failure.

As well, the campus uses several auditing systems, adds Sheen. Health Canada audits the facility, as do clients. UPS also has its own internal quality assurance standards and hires external auditors. “There’s a constant flow of audits,” he says. “We’re probably one of the most audited organizations anywhere.” MM&D