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When the going gets tough, the tough get … out a yellow legal pad and start sketching a built-tough handwashing station that will keep hands clean during the pandemic, whether it be at a construction site or even a grocery store.
“Handwashing has certainly become an extremely high priority for many people now,” says Matt Mifflin general superintendent at UMC Inc., a mechanical contractor founded in 1920 and based in Mulkileto, Washington.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, frequent hand washing is one of the most effective ways to protect yourself and others from contracting COVID-19.
“And even when COVID-19 goes away,” Mifflin adds, “the need for handwashing is going to stick.”
Mifflin drew his sink rendering last March as the first cases of COVID-19 hit the Seattle region, a part of the country that was hit early and hard by the pandemic.
In a blog post, Mifflin recounted how UMC construction crews were making the best of the situation by building hand washing stations out of plywood and utility sinks.
The sinks worked for the moment and were an improvement from what was typically available at jobsites for hand washing, Mifflin figured.
“But as COVID-19 began to spread throughout the area and CDC guidelines became loud and clear—soap and water is the only way to keep workers safe—many of us knew this temporary solution was not going to be sustainable for the long haul,” Mifflin wrote.
Basically, what Mifflin dreamt up was a high-performance, touchless sink. Hands-free faucet. Hands-free soap dispenser. Hands-free towel dispenser. Plus, social distancing baked into the dimensions. All fabbed on a steel backbone that can be literally rolled or be lifted anywhere.
“It was clear, the entire construction industry quickly needed wash stations that were portable and easy to transport, could be picked up with a forklift or a tower crane to the highest floors of a building project and would follow all the social distancing and hand-washing requirements,” Mifflin adds.
Although UMC’s initial thoughts for its prototype were to offer better protection for its own crews on construction sites that changed considerably in late-March when Gov. Jay Inslee ordered construction sites shut down when COVID-19 first hit the state.
Nearly every one of UMC’s projects shut down, driving revenue down and forcing UMC CEO Jerry Bush to put more than half his workforce on standby.
As the team tried to think of ways to keep business going, they realized hand washing was going to the best bet for the near term.
As a result, UMC quickly turned Mifflin’s sketch into a finished product that could be marketed to others and, more importantly, put UMC employees back to work.
Three weeks later, UMC was selling more sinks that they could have imagined. Plus, management was able to put 30 employees back to work with the hope of bringing even more back as production for the hand washing stations ramped up. (The governor’s construction ban has since seen a limited rollback with construction projects that were underway before the ban now being allowed to restart work, subject to a new list of safety restrictions – and you can bet, an emphasis on clean hands is on that list.)
In just the first five hours the stations were on the market, UMC got 60 replies to its initial email promoting the equipment to general contractors, developers, building owners and other vendors.
"We went from a sketch to here we are, you know, two months later and almost 200 sinks sold,” Bush says, adding that some of the sinks have been sold shipped to companies in New York and Iowa.
About the sinks
Touch-free faucets, soap and towel dispensers are natural features for the sinks.
To further meet CDC recommendations for social distancing and allow four people at a time to wash up safely, UMC made its first model with the sinks six feet apart (two per side) with a partition to guard facing hand washers. (Since then, two-sink and compact models have been designed.)
Options include a hot water heater, collection sump and back-flow preventer. Station installation requires a 1-1/2-inch waste line and a ¾-inch cold water line. It also requires a dedicated 15-amp circuit for 120-volt power for the hot waste options.
“And knowing that this virus isn’t going away anytime soon, we made them durable and able to stand up over time, not something to be thrown in the scrap pile six months down the road,” Mifflin adds.
While many Seattle area GCs were the natural first customer for the sinks,
UMC has since talked to medical facilities, warehouse clubs and groceries – basically, anywhere, that more and more people are likely to want to wash their hands frequently to fight infection.
For example, the Top of Hill Produce and Meats is a popular grocery store in the Seattle’s Renton Highlands neighborhood. UMC outfitted the store with one of the stations so that customers can wash their hands upon entering and leaving the store for an added sense of wellbeing. Knowing that hands are clean as people handle the products in the store helps lessen customers’ stress about the spread of COVID-19.
The owners say Top of the Hill's business has tripled from normal during this time of year, especially since adding curbside pick-up as well. Besides, sanitizing the store and grocery carts, the UMC handwashing stations are one more way to help keep the store as clean as possible.
Bush believes having healthier environments in offices, schools and other buildings will be a key topic moving forward in terms of HVAC, air movement, UV lights and surface treatments.
“You put your kids in school and you can almost guarantee in September you're going to catch a cold because the kids go to the petri dish at school and bring it all home,” Bush says. “We're looking at developing packages and options for building owners of all different types of facilities to be able to bring their people back.”
Between manufacturing the wash stations and a return of some construction projects and the mobile sink project, UMC has brought all its office workers and a large portion of its field workers back onto payroll – about 320 of its employees are working out of the full staff of 450 to 500.
“During times like these,” Mifflin adds, “it is impressive to see how our company comes together and gets things done. It puts me in awe of what can happen with an idea scratched out on a note pad when it’s followed by support from our field crew leaders, VCS, and manufacturing teams, not to mention all those who got the word out. The best thing is we are making a difference during this crisis.”