Several of the area’s major area manufacturers are conducting essential operations through the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to practice heightened safety measures.
But even as the state shifts into a phased reopening of the economy, navigating the uncertain road ahead challenges the companies to make future decisions to balance operations with the health and safety of their employees.
Corning’s optical fiber facility in Wilmington was deemed an essential business and has been conducting operations through the governor’s stay-at-home order, Beth Dann, director of Corning Inc.'s external communications and corporate communications, said in an email this week.
On Tuesday, Gov. Roy Cooper modified the state's existing stay-at-home order to transition into a first phase
of easing into the reopening of the economy by lifting certain COVID-19-related restrictions. The new orders take effect Friday at 5 p.m.
The new order by the governor removes the distinction between essential and nonessential businesses, allowing more businesses, including most retailers, to operate with limitations and health and safety guidelines. All workers at retail and other businesses are recommended to wear cloth face coverings, and teleworking is still encouraged for businesses that can practice it, according to a news release from the governor's office.
While Corning's Wilmington plant, at 310 N. College Road, has remained operational, a number of its employees at the site have been working from home, Dann said, adding that those employees will eventually return to work.
“Exactly when that happens will be determined in accordance with relevant government guidance and taking into account Corning’s workplace best practices. We are continuing to focus on responsible personal health and protected workplace protocols to help ensure the continued health and safety of our employees,” Dann said.
All employees at Corning's Wilmington facility with the ability to work remotely – those not essential to manufacturing operations – started working from home the week of March 16, she said.
As Corning employees eventually migrate back into the workplace, Corning plans to continue to exercise protected workplace practices, “such as mask-wearing, temperature screening, enhanced cleaning and social distancing," Dann said.
"Return to work is being managed on a phased, site-specific basis, ensuring the continuation of Corning’s proven protected workplace practices and in accordance with relevant government guidance," she said.
At Wilmington's Fortron Industries plant at 4600 U.S. Hwy 421 N., operations have also continued.
The business was determined by the state as an “essential critical infrastructure workforce,” Travis Jacobsen, director of global corporate communications for Fortron and Celanese Crop., said in an email this week.
Fortron Industries, a joint venture between Celanese and Kureha Chemicals Industry Co. of Japan, manufactures Fortron polyphenylene sulfide, a type of thermoplastic polymer used in automotive, consumer goods, industrial, medical and aerospace applications.
“The Fortron site has been operating under a ‘Core Operations’ mode during this time,” Jacobsen said, adding that all its 100 employees have remained employed.
In March, the company implemented several safety measures to ensure the health and safety of the local community, plant personnel (employees and contractors) and the physical facility itself, he said.
Those include requiring active screenings for all contractors and employees at the beginning of each day, enhanced cleaning of facilities, following social distancing recommendations on-site and requiring personal protective equipment to be worn by all personnel, he said.
“Our plans are to return to normal operations while continuing to ensure the health and safety of our employees and contractors,” Jacobsen said, adding that the firm couldn’t speculate on the timing.
And General Electric’s nuclear and aviation businesses in Wilmington are also operating at the corporate site off Castle Hayne Road.
GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy's operations at the Wilmington headquarters support essential infrastructure operations, electricity generation, as well as the Global Nuclear Fuel business, a fuel manufacturing and development operation also located at the site.
The GLE Test Loop facility, however, had stopped operations in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resumed operations on April 27.
Global Laser Enrichment (GLE), a business venture formed in the 2000s by General Electric (GE), Hitachi and Cameco to develop uranium enrichment services capability commercially, develops the SILEX laser isotope separation process technology.
While GE Hitachi has a majority ownership in the GLE business, Silex Systems Limited and Cameco, however, are looking to purchase GE Hitachi's majority share, pending a restructuring approval by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Halting operations at the GLE facility was "deemed necessary for a number of factors including worker health and safety, and prioritization of essential activities at GE Hitachi’s Wilmington nuclear fuel fabrication site," stated Silex in its April 28 market update.
"All activities will be conducted under strict procedures and protocols aimed at minimizing the risk of exposure to, or the spread of the COVID-19 virus. It is possible that operations could again be suspended if there are any additional risks to workers’ health and safety, however, Silex will not report any further temporary suspension unless it lasts for a significant time," Silex officials said in the update.
Through the pandemic, GE Hitachi officials said it has encouraged employees to work remotely, but has maintained critical operations at the site in line with local, state and federal guidelines.
“The work GE is doing provides mission-critical equipment, services and research across the healthcare, energy, and aviation sectors, and we’re proud of our employees that continue to make sure we can deliver for our customers and partners during their time of need," corporate officials said in a statement. "At our site in Wilmington, our essential business operations continue to be up and running. We have implemented comprehensive safety measures to protect essential staff and flexible work arrangements for our employees.”
GE Hitachi is closely monitoring the latest directives from the state and is formulating return to work plans consistent with any new directives, company officials said.
GE’s aviation business, which operates a plant that manufactures rotating jet engine parts, is also considered an essential industry under government guidelines, a GE Aviation spokesperson said in an email.
But as operations have continued at the Wilmington site, corporate officials announced this week layoffs to its global workforce
. Site-specific details were not released.
GE Aviation has implemented several safety measures at the Wilmington site, including temperature checks, restrictions on visitors, zoning of the plant and other hygiene and social distancing measures, officials said.
Among those measures, the company purchased spray bottles and self-mixed bleach solution and supplied 1,400 bottles of hand sanitizer to help protect workers and disinfect individual workstations. It is also providing personal protective equipment to Wilmington employees, according to the company.
The Wilmington site also has a daily cleaning service that disinfects and sanitizes common areas, the manufacturing floor and office areas, three times a day.
“GE Aviation’s number one priority is the health and safety of our employees. We moved quickly to implement multiple layers of safety across our global sites to enable our employees to safely continue their essential work,” GE Aviation officials stated. “We continue to collaborate with public health authorities to actively monitor the outbreak and take all necessary precautions.”