To mask or not to mask

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by Emily Atkins

The humble face mask has become a hot topic as warehouses and distribution centres – and other workplaces – seek to keep workers safe from the coronavirus.

As the Covid-19 pandemic has evolved, so too has advice on whether protective face coverings are a help or a hindrance. At first we were told they were useless or dangerous; now that thinking has evolved to a recommendation that face coverings be worn when a physical distance of two metres or more cannot be maintained, whether at work or out in the community.

The Canadian Centre of Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), a federal agency, has issued a series of fact sheets, protocols, links to provincial resources, and other information to help guide best practices. The tools can be found, free of charge, at

Supply chain operations

We spoke to several Canadian organizations ranging from SMEs to the biggest of them all – Amazon – to find out how they are managing infection prevention as they continue or return to work.

At sporting goods distributor Mizuno Canada Ltd. the four staff in the 28,500-square-foot warehouse are back on the job full time, said president John Stacey. Office staff work from home.

Because of the size of the warehouse, they are easily able to keep the required two metres apart, and have sanitizer, masks and gloves on hand should closer contact be required. As part of their protocol every shipment in and out is being recorded should any cases of Covid-19 need to be tracked.

Ontario’s Liquor Control Board (LCBO), has experienced increased demand for alcoholic beverages through the pandemic. According to Nick Nanos, LCBO’s senior vice-president, supply chain and wholesale, keeping up was critical, and ensuring the safety of workers at its distribution centres was key to maintaining operations.

“In addition to a series of health and safety measures…our employees are provided face shields and have the option to wear non-medical face masks,” Nanos said. “Store workers wear them and in the warehouses it’s more on the basis of the role and situation. If you’re at the end of a line where there’s manual palletization or in a jackpot or hospital lanes, people wear them, or in the pick mods. It really depends on what they’re doing.”

Giant Tiger has opted to make face masks mandatory at all stores, within distribution centres, and for its truck drivers whenever they are outside of the truck. The company is providing employees with a choice of disposable masks, reusable masks and face shields and has provided training on their proper use and importance. Another protocol is health screenings and temperature checks.

“All of the measures put in place, including heightened cleaning and sanitization, physical distancing measures and more, have all been done for the health and safety of our people, their families and our communities,” said Jess Godin, the company’s senior vice-president, supply chain. “We recognize that this situation is very fluid and are focused on adapting as the climate changes and as further information from health officials becomes available.”

In March, Polaris Transportation Group had some challenges procuring hand sanitizer, gloves and masks. However, since April the company has had a good supply and is now ordering regularly to ensure there is inventory at hand.

Drivers and front-line workers have been provided protective eye wear, gloves and sanitizer with the addition of face shields, and have been trained on how to use and dispose of the PPE properly. Additional training will be provided on an on-going basis as required. All touch points of the trucks, inside equipment and in the office are being sanitized after each use. All interchange areas are also under Covid-19 protocols, meaning two-metre distancing, protective eye wear, gloves and masks.

“Our plan is to keep up these safety practices until we have a vaccine for Covid-19,” said president Dave Cox.

Gap Inc. has put measures in place, as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), to keep facilities clean and help employees stay healthy and physically distanced.

“We provide single-use non-medical masks for all distribution centre workers and, in Brampton, we mandate their use in specific parts of the distribution centre, like those managing our pick modules,” said Terry Fisch, Gap’s senior director, Canada – retail & e-commerce logistics. “All employees must wash their hands and undergo a temperature check before passing through security.” Gap is reviewing these protocols regularly and modifies them as needed.

Amazon recently announced that as part of a US$4 billion Covid-19 response plan it has spent $800 million on health and safety measures in its fulfillment centres in the first six months of the year. These include thermal screening and disinfectant spraying, reconfiguring break rooms, physical distancing and mandatory masks.