Anja Berkenfeld on Corona pandemic at thyssenkrupp

When it comes to health in the workplace, Dr. Anja Berkenfeld is the first point of contact at thyssenkrupp. The Head of Occupational Safety & Health and specialist in internal medicine has been working for the group for more than 18 years. However, she does not only encounter running noses and cuts. Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, condemning a global pandemic has become a major part of her daily work.

We talked to Dr. Berkenfeld about the current situation at thyssenkrupp and how she and her team prevent the virus from spreading throughout the company.

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Dear Ms Berkenfeld, at the end of February we conducted an interview on the novel coronavirus. Two months have passed since the interview - how have you experienced the past weeks?

Anja Berkenfeld: The coronavirus has spread rapidly worldwide - we are all familiar with the media reports. We at thyssenkrupp have been monitoring the situation closely throughout the entire period and have carefully considered what measures are sensible and necessary as a reaction. We acted early and prudently. For me personally, the past few weeks have been characterized above all by many discussions in the crisis teams, the development of concepts and the procurement of protective equipment.

What is the current situation in the company?

Anja Berkenfeld: The situation at our company varies greatly from country to country and also from division to division. In China, where we experienced the peak of the coronavirus spread a few weeks ago, we are resuming normal operations. In Europe and the US the situation is different. At numerous locations we had to cut back production or temporarily shut down plants. This applies in particular to the automotive business. But we also have many plants that are continuing to operate normally - naturally with working methods adapted to the pandemic and the necessary protective measures. At thyssenkrupp Rasselstein for example, we have an extremely good situation because demand for packaging steel for cans of all kinds has increased since the crisis. Wherever possible we work from home. That currently means around 30,000 colleagues.

Clearly, you can’t just switch off a blast furnace. This is the case for our colleagues from Steel in Duisburg, Germany and is why some colleagues have to remain on site. What criteria does thyssenkrupp use to decide who is able to work remotely, what locations will close and who will continue working at the plants?

Anja Berkenfeld: The decision is made locally by our businesses - they can best weigh up what the most sensible measures are - both for the health and well-being of the employees and for the business itself. That's why the crisis teams and local management make this decision, and we at OSH (Occupational Safety and Health) advise them. Can the work be done from home? If not, can we reorganize processes to ensure that hygiene measures such as distance rules can be observed? What protective equipment is needed to protect employees from infection? All these questions have to be answered.

What happens if a thyssenkrupp employee becomes infected with COVID-19?

Anja Berkenfeld: If a colleague shows symptoms of possible COVID-19 disease, we follow our pandemic management procedures in close cooperation with the local authorities. This includes that the person stays at home until the test has been evaluated. This time spent at home by someone suspected of being infected, in consultation with superiors, is used to gain an overview of potential contact persons. Depending on the intensity of the contact, they stay at home as a precaution. We appoint someone to maintain close contact with the suspected case in order to find out as soon as possible whether the suspected case has become a confirmed case. If the case is confirmed, the public health department and the local crisis management team coordinate the further steps. Depending on the movement profile of the person concerned and the group of people potentially at risk, graduated precautions are taken to protect other employees.

As a company doctor, you are part of the crisis teams. How has the coordination of safety measures at international level developed? What were the main differences between the countries in which thyssenkrupp is represented?

Anja Berkenfeld: The coronavirus always has the same biology. So the basic messages are always the same. However, different countries sometimes pursue very different strategies and have different healthcare systems. This must then be taken into account in the corresponding local crisis teams.

Let us look a little bit into the future. What will the reality at German locations look like in the future?

Anja Berkenfeld: At the moment there is no effective vaccine in the fight against the coronavirus. Therefore, we have to learn and accept that the virus will be part of our lives for the time being. That is why I also believe that we have to get out of the permanent crisis mode. We must consider the virus in all our future plans and management. This must become part of normal operations.

The measures to contain the current pandemic are demanding a lot from all of us: personal contacts with colleagues, friends or grandparents should be reduced to a minimum or should be avoided altogether. In addition, many employees are faced with a double burden of childcare. What does that do to us?

Anja Berkenfeld: The measures taken are important to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus and gain time for research into a vaccine. But it is also clear that they have an enormous impact on our entire lives. The isolation at home, the lack of personal contact and, of course, the flood of negative news is very difficult for many people and can also affect their mental well-being. The additional stress caused by a lack of childcare is added to this.

How can we better deal with this additional stress and also support our colleagues in this difficult time?

Anja Berkenfeld: Structuring the day well, consciously informing yourself about the current situation and doing things that are good for you - in my opinion, these are important building blocks for dealing better with the current situation. A walk outside or a bike ride can help you gain distance and reduce stress. It is also important to maintain social contacts in times of "social distancing". And this is where digitalization helps us. Many already use video calls to exchange ideas and create a feeling of closeness. And that is also important in the work context. Lunch or even coffee breaks can be arranged virtually. Advice from outside can also be helpful. In Germany, for example, we offer a hotline for confidential advice. The offer includes not only psychological counseling, but also medical health counseling and support for financial worries. We have similar local services in other countries.

Many employees, especially in the service department and at the plants, are concerned about their health. Do you have any tips on how colleagues can protect themselves on the way to work and during their working hours?

Anja Berkenfeld: Distance and hygiene are the most important things. If everyone keeps to the simple rules: Washing your hands, keeping your distance and sneezing etiquette, we have a good weapon against the coronavirus. With this in mind, we do everything we can to protect our employees in the plants. Shifts have been distributed to ensure that the rules of spacing are observed. Where this is not possible, we use protective equipment.

What can colleagues do for their own health in these difficult times - and what would be the right course of action if they suspected they had been infected themselves or were suffering psychologically from the pandemic?

Anja Berkenfeld: If you suspect a corona infection, the first step should be to contact your family doctor by telephone. They will be able to assess the symptoms and then decide whether a test should be carried out. If employees suffer from emotional pressure or feel exhausted because of the pandemic, it is important to confide in someone. Friends or family can be an important support here - or the external support already mentioned.

How have you experienced the changes caused by the Corona pandemic in your everyday work and in your team?

Anja Berkenfeld: My strategy team works entirely from home. The Medical Center is on emergency standby on site and also works from the home office. In the meantime, occupational health consultations are also held by telephone wherever possible.

This works incredibly well and I hope that we can take this positive insight with us for the time after the Corona crisis. Much has been said about New Ways of Working, now we are doing it. The different functions and areas are moving closer together and there is more exchange - we should definitely keep that in mind for the time after the crisis.

What were your biggest concerns when the number of COVID-19 infections - and in recent weeks, unfortunately, the number of deaths as well - rose in Germany?

Anja Berkenfeld: We are currently on a very good path in Germany in managing this situation. My greatest fear is that we are now becoming overconfident. The decisive factor for the future is the consistent implementation of distance and hygiene. This is where every single person is called for. Otherwise, this initial success will very quickly be history.

What did you personally feel was the greatest challenge in dealing with the pandemic?

Anja Berkenfeld: The biggest challenge is to achieve a common understanding of the facts. We at thyssenkrupp have succeeded in doing this quite well. In my view, what is needed now is endurance and constant attentiveness to react to current circumstances at all times. We are all dealing with a new situation. In this respect we have to make decisions and be prepared to question them and change them if necessary.

What will you personally take with you from this situation?

Anja Berkenfeld: How well and efficiently we can work together across departmental and divisional boundaries. I am really excited about that! We are currently working together in the Group as well and closely as never before. Things are being tackled and implemented quickly. Everyone is focused on the essentials - that's good to see and I hope that we can maintain this in the future.