Mark Cox

Mark Cox

Eastman Chemical Co. reached out to the Longview community Saturday with what it hopes is a “loud statement”: The company told its employees not to travel outside the region. And it hopes the rest of the community will follow suit.

“There is no question what our priorities are, and the priority is human life,” Eastman Senior Vice President Mark Cox said Saturday.

The company’s primary objective is protecting its employees and their families, he said, and Eastman sees a window of opportunity to help control the local spread of an illness that’s wreaking havoc globally.

With about 1,500 employees, the company’s Longview plant is the city’s largest industrial employer, and the second-largest private employer after Christus Good Shepherd. About 300 contractors also work on-site.

“We in the Longview community have a situation right now where we know of no Eastman employees and one Gregg County person who has coronavirus,” Cox said.

Fifteen other cases had been reported in the region as of Saturday: 10 in Smith County and one each in Upshur, Van Zandt , Rusk, Cass and Bowie counties.

“That’s a relatively low incident rate, so let’s take this golden opportunity and heed the guidance we’ve been given and not create a situation that hurts our neighbors, hurts the elderly, hurts those with compromised immune systems and also puts our economic vitality at risk for the community,” he said. “We would like to be a loud voice in the community in that regard because we think that is the responsible thing to do as one of the leading employers in the city.”

Helping to stop the illness’s spread, though, also helps “maintain operational continuity” at the local plant and protects its role in the economy, Cox said.

“Products we produce as a company, some of which are sourced right there in Longview, have a big impact on our mission, and that is to improve the quality of life in a material way,” he said, with products used in the health care industry and in housing, clothing and feeding the world.

Cox said the company wasn’t specific about what regional travel means, but that it generally would include the several counties around Gregg County. Employees have been advised not to take any road trips, and if they do, they should talk to their supervisor before returning to work so they can be “triaged properly.”

International travel restrictions for Eastman employees started weeks ago. Those who went on cruises or traveled to regions of concern were asked to inform their supervisors where they’d been and not report to work until they had been vetted, Cox said.

“We’ve done a reasonably good job of that,” he said. “We have had a quarantine at home in a few cases.”

Longview is Eastman’s second-largest site out of about 50 manufacturing locations around the world.

“We’re ensuring that as far as the interior plant goes, only those who are essential to operating the facility are there,” Cox said. “We’re also asking our contractors to mirror the action we take.”

Like at the Kingsport, Tennessee facility, which is the company’s largest site and headquarters, local employees who aren’t needed to “plan, source, make and deliver products and can work from home, get to work from home,” he said.

“Those who are not operating, mechanical, electrical or crafts personnel but are needed to plan, source, make and deliver products — we have divided into two teams,” Cox said. “One team reports to work and works for two weeks, and the other team then relieves them because the other team is working from home during that two weeks.”

Many of the site’s employees — operators and mechanics for instance — can’t work from home. So, Cox said, for the first time in more than 30 years, the plant took the “unprecedented step in modern times” of changing shift schedules.

It had operated on a schedule that saw four crews working in 12-hour, rotating shifts. Now, there are two pairs of crews who work 12 hour shifts, days and nights, for seven days in a row. Then they’re off seven days in a row.

“The former rotation would have a combination of interfaces … that would have all four crews handing off to each other at some point,” on a routine basis, Cox said. The move reduces interactions.

Escalated cleaning protocols and strict measures to ensure proper distancing, including during shift changes, also have been put in place.

Personnel who are not needed in operating areas are not allowed to enter those locations.

“We want to ensure there’s no potential for transmission among our operators and mechanics from other staff,” Cox said.

Eastman’s manufacturing facilities include one in Wuhan, China, where the pandemic is believed to have started. Cox said none of the company’s employees there contracted the illness, and the plant remains closed as required by the government.

“Of course, we have operations throughout Europe, so we see it coming,” Cox said. “We need to be wise. We need to learn from what has happened not be selfish in our actions, so we’re trying to have a strong voice in the community.”