Long before anyone had ever heard of coronavirus, North Little Rock-based CTEH was advising companies on how to prepare for – and mitigate – any number of potential incidents, including global pandemics.
“We help companies prepare for incidents,” said Chris Kuhlman, project toxicologist. “That could be through drills, that could be through plan writing, that could be through just regular consulting.”
“If there is an incident, we have teams of environmental scientists, toxicologists and industrial hygienists that will go to the incident to support a client’s health and safety program. That can include monitoring, sampling and also additional plan writing and risk communication along with community outreach.”
Now that the virus is here, the firm hasn’t missed a step, leveraging its extensive expertise to help companies manage and minimize the impact of the pandemic on workers.
“Some of the biology of a virus is going to be different than a chemical exposure,” he said. “But a lot of controls and protective mechanisms that you can implement at a workplace are actually similar to what we deal with in chemical release emergencies. A lot of what we do as toxicologists and industrial hygienists is protect workers from exposures in their workplace or the community. The hierarchy of controls would be similar for a virus or a chemical exposure.”
Part of what enables CTEH to be so light on its feet when it comes to adapting to new threats is the depth of expertise held by the company’s 20-plus PhD toxicologists, certified industrial hygienists, M.D. toxicologist and staff of occupational health nurses. It’s a roster that allows the company to serve a wide variety of client needs and market segments from manufacturing and government to utilities and maritime, to name a few. This versatility is an important competitive differentiator in the marketplace.
“I honestly can’t think of another company that’s like ours, that has such a staff of educated professionals that respond globally,” Kuhlman said. “As a toxicologist I’m on call a few weeks out of the year and if an emergency comes in, I could be boarding a plane and heading anywhere.”
“I’ve jumped on a plane and headed to California for certain projects, I’ve had responses in Canada. In fact, I was on my way to Montreal for a COVID project before they implemented their quarantine.”
CTEH employees aren’t just deployed during an emergency or exposure; a large part of what the company does is help client firms envision the worst and craft action plans to deal with it. Pandemic emergency protocols aren’t new, but they weren’t as common prior to COVID as they are likely to be going forward. And that’s creating a lot of opportunity for CTEH, Kuhlman said.
“As a whole, CTEH has really been helping our clients develop their pandemic plans and infection control programs to help prevent work–related exposures and illnesses from COVID,” he said. “That involves helping (clients) build up certain barriers of protection for keeping the virus away from their workplaces. We’ve helped them develop enhanced screening protocols. We’ve developed some wellness reporting tools where employees can report how they’re feeling before they even come to the workplace.”
“What’s started to become more important now is a lot of federal and state agencies are implementing their return–to–work plans. We’ve been helping companies with how they’re going to reopen or de-escalate the programs that are currently in place.”
Kuhlman said one key element of the company’s operations that isn’t always talked about is collecting data that can be used to track incidents, inform clients and even develop new protocols for more effective mitigation processes in the future.
“Everything we do in the field on these projects, including COVID with all the temperature screening and case management, involves data collection,” he said. “Being able to collect that data and maintain it and present it with consideration for HIPAA laws and other regulations is something that we’re very good at. Specific to this response, we’ve developed tools for wellness tracking and case management that a lot of our clients have found very useful.”
Kuhlman said most companies understand and appreciate the need to keep employees safe, if for no other reason than to remain in compliance with various regulatory agencies. The pandemic, however, shined a new and brighter light on the need for formal safety protocols that can be quickly implemented, rigidly enforced and adapt to changing conditions.
“We’re learning more about this virus every day and constantly evaluating and reevaluating the plans in place,” he said. “When this first started, companies developed screening protocols to identify people coming to the worksite and most of those were based on where they’d traveled because coming from a level 3 CDC country like China would put you in a high–risk category.”
“As the virus spread everywhere, those questionnaires really weren’t very relevant anymore. So, you had more of a symptom–based approach where you started temperature checking and things like that. We found companies that were able to adapt to new information were better able to maintain those barriers to prevent illnesses in their workplace.”