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The National Industries for the Blind, in partnership with some 40 associated agencies, has mobilized a nationwide workforce to produce more than 1,500 items offering protection against the COVID-19 virus. In this conversation with SupplyChainBrain Editor-in-Chief Bob Bowman, Kevin Lynch, president and chief executive officer of the NIB, describes the work that’s underway, as well as the longtime contribution of blind workers to crucial government and military missions.
SCB: How did NIB and its associated agencies step up to begin producing essential products for the pandemic?
Lynch: For over 80 years now, we’ve been supplying the federal government and Department of Defense with critical items that have been used for their missions. We've been involved well before the pandemic in terms of supporting our military, throughout all of their engagements. We were somewhat prepared for this, if you could be prepared for a pandemic, but I will tell you that it was kind of unprecedented for the personal protection products that we supply to the military and federal government to all of a sudden get the surge that we did.
SCB: Was it simply a question of scaling up existing production, or were these individuals required to pivot completely away from what they were doing in order to make these supplies?
Lynch: Actually, both. We've been supplying the federal government with things like hand sanitizers, as well the Veterans Health Administration, TSA and DOD with latex and nitrile gloves well before this. As you can imagine, the volumes all of a sudden greatly exceeded what they would normally be, but they've been able to manage that. In addition, we were able to pivot a number of our agencies that produce clothing and tech items for military personnel, to switch them over to producing cloth masks not only for the military, but for throughout the federal government. We’ve produced over 2 million of those masks. Additionally, we've had agencies that were involved in classic fabrication shift to making face shields.
SCB: How large is the overall workforce that constitutes both NIB and its associated agencies?
Lynch: We have approximately 6,000 people who are blind that are in our workforce. They’re working at about 60 of our nonprofit agencies across the country.
SCB: Did you need to add people in order to handle the surge in demand, or was it just a matter of ramping up existing resources?
Lynch: We did have to add to the workforce, particularly where we've added shifts. We've extended into seven-days-a-week production, but given the fact that this country is facing a 70% unemployment rate for people who are blind, the workforce is there. There are challenges, because one of the major barriers for employment for a person who's blind is getting to and from work. They rely significantly on public transportation to do that. That's been impacted by the pandemic, but our agencies are very creative and have mobilized ways to get individuals to and from the jobs.
SCB: Once they’re at the job, how did they work safely in a pandemic situation?
Lynch: These agencies are well versed in best-in-class practices. We’ve gone through a lot of learning experiences. In our manufacturing operations, there’s the challenge of keeping people socially distanced. With our rehab engineering workforce, we worked with our agencies to creatively set up production lines that were able to keep people safe. At the same time, we provided them with all the personal protection equipment that they needed.
SCB: Was this surge in production all government-contracted work, or are they also producing for the private sector?
Lynch: This has been primarily for the government. The program operates under legislation that was enacted back in 1938, allowing us to to produce items or perform services that the federal government needs for its various missions. A number of our agencies did jump in and help in their local communities, particularly with providing PPE to hospitals, but the focus has primarily been on supplying the very large demand that we've been receiving from the government and military.
SCB: Do you have a rough figure on the number of units that are being produced during the pandemic by this army of skilled workers?
Lynch: Right now, we're producing approximately 1,600 different COVID-19-related product SKUs. So far, we’ve provided 1.6 million gallons of disinfectant cleaner, and over six and a half million bottles of Purell Skilcraft hand sanitizer. We’ve provided over 900 million gloves to both the VA and Defense Logistics Agency, as well to the Department of Health and Human Services.
SCB: Is that 70% unemployment rate for blind people just during the pandemic, or was it the case before?
Lynch: Unfortunately, that 70% number has hung around for a number of years. It's still a challenge in terms of the perceptions that companies have about whether a blind person can really do the type of job that they need. One of our major tasks is to go out and remove those barriers, and demonstrate that they really are capable of doing it. I've often said that we’re one of the best-kept American secrets because our workforce is dedicated and loyal. They have shown up. Where the sighted employees we've had have stayed home because they were concerned about the pandemic, our workforce continues to come in.
SCB: Do you expect this level of production to continue for the remainder of the year? How will it look in the months to come, as the vaccine gets distributed and the pandemic begins to subside?
Lynch: Based on the information from talking with the officials we work with, we anticipate that the demand is going to continue at a higher level than what we saw pre-pandemic for our PPE items. That's because even with the vaccine rollout, they still anticipate that they're going to have certain protocols in place that will require ongoing cleaning, continued use of masks and social distancing, and latex gloves. Even after some of those protocols start coming down, I think the general population, at least for the near future, is going to be a little more heightened and sensitive toward hygiene. They’ll be more concerned about being exposed to the next cold or virus.
SCB: Do think this initiative might help to demonstrate the potential of this underutilized workforce going forward, and help to address the severe unemployment rate among the blind?
Lynch: Absolutely. I really want to thank you for considering doing a piece on this, because it’s a challenge to get out there and remove these perception barriers that exist. The way to do that is to tell our story, and be able to demonstrate that we've been doing this before the pandemic. We've been supporting things like Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield. Our workforce is very capable to meet the needs of our government customers.
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