Disaster response is nothing new to ISEA members. After all, they’ve been there through oil spills, hurricanes, terrorist attacks and countless other disasters. But COVID-19 was different. Even though early intelligence warned COVID-19 would be big, ISEA members had no idea just how much of an impact the virus would have on the healthcare system.

“Hospitals run on a just-in-time system. And so when they were hit with all these additional patients and the medical supply chain was emptied, the safety industry had a large surge in demand for certified worker protection gear,” says Craig Wallentine, immediate past chair of the ISEA board of trustees. “That wasn’t the biggest issue, though, because we’re accustomed to abnormal demand spikes. What caught everybody by surprise was that the demand just kept rising and rising beyond anything we had seen before.”

ISEA members responded quickly, bringing new capacity online and establishing additional supply partnerships. They came together to do what they do best: protect people.

ADVOCACY AND GOVERNMENT RELATIONS

During the pandemic, ISEA stepped up its role as a liaison between the federal government and safety equipment manufacturers. From the very beginning, ISEA was on hand to answer questions from the feds about how much personal protective equipment (PPE) was being made, identify disruptions in production and develop innovative solutions.

ISEA worked closely with the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) on several fronts, including fast-tracking the approval of powered airpurifying respirators (PAPRs) for healthcare use in accordance with federal standards. These approvals had been in the works for years prior to the pandemic.

“ISEA then immediately mobilized bipartisan support in Washington, D.C., to add NIOSH-approved respirators to the PREP Act [part of the CARES Act],” says Wells Bullard, president and CEO of Bullard and a member of the ISEA board of trustees. “That helped ensure access to more essential respiratory protection products, especially for healthcare workers on the front lines.”

PRODUCTION SUPPORT

ISEA also bolstered members’ production capabilities. In several cases, the association helped by playing matchmaker among members.

“One thing ISEA did that was super helpful was they connected us to Toyota, which was looking for ways to help during the pandemic,” Bullard says. “[Bullard] partnered with Toyota because of their expertise in lean manufacturing to help us increase capacity quickly. They were able to help us figure out ways to make the products for healthcare workers even more effectively and efficiently.”

As a result of such collaborative efforts, manufacturers increased production and met demand extremely quickly, considering the scale of the situation.

EDUCATING END USERS

For millions of people, the pandemic was the first time they had ever heard of PPE, let alone worn it on a regular basis.

“All of a sudden, PPE became a household term around the world,” Bullard says. “The pandemic made everyone more aware of the importance of personal health and safety, as well as the responsibility that we all have to our communities in advocating for and demonstrating personal health and safety.”

Unfortunately, misinformation proliferated about how PPE can and should be used. Because safety equipment is only effective when used correctly, ISEA took it upon itself to perform outreach and educate end users.

“It was really challenging in the beginning. People were asking for information on how to reuse disposable masks or how to wash nonwashable respirators,” Wallentine says. “We knew we had to do something. So ISEA consulted multiple manufacturers on safety education and then said, ‘OK, as the leading PPE association, representing the best in our industry, our positions and recommendations are these,’ which was more effective.”

ANTI-COUNTERFEIT MEASURES

With demand at a fever pitch, several foreign companies began producing counterfeit products to profit off the pandemic. And consumers — as well as federal agents — at times found it difficult to distinguish between real and fake products.

“The product managers within ISEA member companies have a deep knowledge of how their products and designs are certified to perform. These experts worked closely with federal agencies to help identify counterfeit products,” Wallentine says. “If they suspected fakes or fraud, ISEA and its members helped verify product authenticity.”

RESPONSE PLANNING

Now that the major respiratory PPE supply problems have been resolved, ISEA is looking to the future. COVID-19 is not the last disaster its members will encounter, which is why as an association, it’s working with the government to share what it has learned and how it can help better prepare the industry and its members going forward.