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COVID-19 Laboratory Challenges and Lessons: Part 3

COVID-19 Laboratory Challenges and Lessons: Part 3

Intertek Allentown provides staff with flexibility, transparency during crisis

Scott D. Hanton
Pete DeSanto, inorganic analysis lab manager for Intertek Allentown.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted laboratories across the world. Some laboratories have been labeled non-essential and face the challenges of being forcibly idled. Other laboratories have been labeled essential and face the challenge of keeping workers safe and delivering during this crisis. This article is the third of three interviews with leaders of laboratories that have been labeled essential and have developed interesting and important ways to address the challenges they face during this pandemic. View part 1 here, and part 2 here.

Intertek Allentown is the custom chemicals and materials analytical lab for Intertek in North America. They specialize in problem-solving, testing, and characterizing chemicals and materials. They address questions from research, product development, and manufacturing through customer inquiries. The team has about 45 people across a broad array of analytical instrumentation and expertise. Pete DeSanto is the inorganic analysis lab manager for Intertek Allentown.


Intertek Allentown response to the COVID-19 crisis

Q: What are some of the key challenges faced by your lab during the COVID-19 crisis?

A: The key business challenges focus on maintaining productivity and quality for our customers, while keeping people safe at work. The key personnel challenges are addressing the stress of uncertainty. That uncertainty is coming from changing work responsibilities, financial stress from reduced hours, and family issues with childcare, elder care, and homeschooling.

Q: What are some things your lab is doing to address these challenges?

A: Transparency, a caring attitude, and open communication are the most important aspects of addressing our challenges since uncertainty is inherent in every aspect of the COVID-19 situation. People need to have their feelings validated and understood before they can begin to deal with the practical solutions to some of these problems. To address personnel challenges, we have maintained open communication. Key discussions have been around schedule flexibility and remote work, which help staff adapt to new needs around child and elder care in the home, and homeschooling. To address stress over business uncertainty, we have focused on transparency and caring. Transparency keeps people informed about the business, connects people’s efforts to the well-being of the business, and helps people seek alternatives to improve productivity. Caring demonstrates that we’re all in this together. The good will that local management has with our employees results in multiple people stepping up and adding roles. We’ve always treated staff as people, not just as assets. They deliver because they know management cares for them as people.

Q: What is something you are particularly proud of that your lab has accomplished during the crisis?

A: Our staff has rallied to respond quickly to adapt to site and company requirements dealing with this situation. Site requirements driven by the landlord include weekly lab mopping, caps on staff occupancy, and wearing of masks in parking lots, as well as in the buildings. Company requirements include thermal screening and hand sanitization before entering the building, appropriate personal hygiene, social distancing at work, communication to management about personal travel to potential COVID-19 hotspots, and modifications to the use of paid time off and unpaid leave. Everyone has really stepped up to embrace these requirements and changes despite the stress, uncertainty, and extra effort required. This speaks volumes about the character of the folks we have on our teams.

Q: What is something that you changed due to the COVID-19 crisis that you think should be retained in the new normal?

A: Microsoft Teams has been a great tool for conducting remote meetings and is much better than other options we’ve used in the past. Rotating schedules afford us expanded coverage throughout the day and makes the timing of communication and delivery more predictable.

Q: What is the most important thing you've learned about your lab during the COVID-19 crisis?

A: Many people need less time physically present in the lab than I originally thought. Much of the documentation, reporting, and data analysis can be done effectively while working remotely.  The ability to work remotely affords people a great deal more flexibility, can improve productivity, and reduce some stress.

Q: What advice do you have for other labs about dealing with the issues driven by the COVID-19 crisis?

A: Be flexible, patient, and understanding with your staff. Provide caring management and discussion, not blind edicts and mandates around changes. Talk about quality and safety.  Remind people that they are more important than revenue. When people know that their health is important and vital, they are more willing to contribute when needed.

Summary

Intertek Allentown has faced business and personnel uncertainty due to the COVID-19 crisis.  By combining transparency and authenticity about the business, true caring from local management, and developing greater flexibility in work schedules, including more remote work options, Intertek Allentown is successfully navigating the crisis. Key learnings include the value of flexibility and adaptability in the staff and caring management to develop the strategies to be effective moving forward.


Pete DeSanto has led the inorganic analysis work team at Intertek Allentown for five years. The team specializes in analytical testing and consulting projects spanning diverse industries and types of materials. He also has the role of key project manager to lead multidisciplinary teams on complex inorganic analytical and deformulations efforts. Pete holds a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Delaware and a BS in chemistry from Millersville University. He was an NRC postdoctoral fellow at NIST prior to joining Air Products and Chemicals, and subsequently Intertek.