How do you keep workers safe during a pandemic and beyond? Even with an effective vaccine rollout, frequent testing at the workplace may remain necessary as we plan for the new normal.
In a webinar on December 3, 2020, Gary Walters, senior safety director at Smithfield Foods, and Dr. Jay P. Tiesman, research fellow at Procter & Gamble, discussed their companies’ efforts in keeping their workers safe by implementing large-scale COVID-19 testing at the workplace. 
Proctor & Gamble (P&G) is a multinational consumer goods corporation with over 99,000 employees at 25 manufacturing centers and 14 technical/business centers. Smithfield Foods is a pork producer and food-processing company with over 55,000 employees at 64 facilities in 5 countries, with hundreds of company-owned farms and thousands of contracted family farms. Both companies had to act rationally and swiftly in response to the crisis for the safety of their thousands of employees, while having to remain flexible with their decisions and policies over time as they continued to navigate the changing dynamics of the pandemic.
Both companies knew they had to implement testing at the workplace in order to minimize virus transmission to keep their workers safe. The two companies took different approaches that utilized their strengths and took into account the challenges they were facing.
Testing program at Smithfield Foods
Walters discussed how crucial testing is to ensure employee safety, and the challenges Smithfield Foods faced when they introduced a testing program. As an essential industry, Smithfield Foods needed a solution as soon as possible. They started by having each facility work with their local health departments, hospitals, and clinics to set up “sweep-testing” to get all employees tested. However, this testing measure required working with different agencies, which in turn generated a large amount of data that could not be consolidated into anything meaningful and actionable. Therefore, they turned to experienced professionals, and outsourced testing to four vendors across the US that could handle the growing demand for large-scale testing. Smithfield Foods decided all tests needed to be polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests due to their superior sensitivity compared to rapid antigen tests. As PCR tests are easily scalable, the four vendors were able to meet the high demand for tests. By outsourcing to the right vendors, Smithfield Foods was able to offer testing to all employees with rapid turnaround time. The vendors also provided meaningful data and suggestions to improve workplace safety.
Proctor & Gamble’s COVID-19 testing
Tiesman discussed similar challenges faced early on by P&G; they debated on whether they should outsource testing, bring the capability inside their facilities entirely, or follow a hybrid approach. Ultimately, P&G decided to bring the testing capability within the company, as they possessed significant cross-functional expertise that was required for successful testing. For example, P&G already had the technical competence in running thousands of samples through PCR, and they already had a working relationship with a leading biotech company that could supply the instruments, kits, and reagents necessary to run tests for all employees. Tiesman discussed how the R&D labs for P&G were not clinical labs, which posed a critical challenge. Therefore, they had to build a Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA)–certified laboratory, which required assistance from external contractors. However, once certified, they were able to bring highly sensitive PCR tests in-house for all their employees. As time passed and as demand for testing increased, P&G had to incorporate new instruments to automate processes to keep up with the demand.
Impact of large-scale testing at the workplace
Walters described how appreciative the employees were for being able to test at the workplace. Although the tests are largely voluntary, the response rate has been high, with most employees utilizing the testing program for their safety. Tiesman shared similar sentiments on how grateful the employees have been with the convenient testing resource at their workplace, especially when local testing facilities were being overloaded with high demand. P&G was glad it did not add more demand to an already stressed system. Most importantly, both leaders described how important workplace testing is to overall employee safety.
As employees return to the workplace, it is essential their safety is prioritized through continuous and sustained COVID-19 testing. Continuous testing is necessary to help identify, isolate, and quarantine those who test positive to prevent further spread of SARS-CoV-2. To find out more about COVID-19 testing at the workplace, visit the Thermo Fisher COVID-19 Workplace Testing webpage.