Plant Inspections: Online Exams are the ‘New Normal’

Posted October 9, 2020 at 8:44 am

Among other challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic that initially struck North America in mid-March posed a dilemma for plant operators. As travel restrictions increased, those companies with plants certified through TRSA’s Hygienically Clean certification program were finding it difficult to have inspectors come to their plants to complete the certification process, or to renew certifications with a new inspection as required once every three years following the initial certification.

The answer – as many office workers have learned – was to use technology in the form of Zoom or Teams software that allows employees to conduct meetings with colleagues, while working off-site. They also can use the internet to transmit documents to their supervisors. In late spring, TRSA’s Certification Programs Manager Angela Freeman and Hygienically Clean program consultant Bob Corfield devised a similar effort using Zoom and other software programs to allow for virtual inspections of plants that could meet the needs of program participants during the pandemic, while ensuring no diminution in the quality of the inspections. This was critical in order for certified laundries to assure hospital, hotel and other clients that the program was as reliable as ever in ensuring that textile products from a given plant were hygienically clean.

TRSA dubbed the new effort the “Hygienically Clean Virtual Inspection Process” or “HyC-VIP.” Corfield recently confirmed that since the program got underway earlier this year, TRSA has conducted dozens of virtual inspections, with no watering down of the standards of cleanliness laid out in the standard, including laboratory testing of sample textiles. “To date, we have completed 31 HyC-VIPs renewals and new certification inspections,” said Corfield, CEO of the Laundry Design Group LLC, Las Vegas. “The response from those inspected has been positive. We have another 30 or so to go for the balance of the year.”

Corfield conceded that – as with many office communications – technological snafus occasionally have posed difficulties with the virtual inspections. “There have been challenges with technology,” he said. “For example, plants not having adequate Wi-Fi, or cellular data for the virtual walk-through. Poor video connections for Zoom or GoToMeeting and other technical issues we have accommodated for the plants.” Overall, the teams have overcome these hurdles without major difficulty, and without compromising the requirements. All participants know that at some point, in-person inspections will resume – so the virtual process is a stopgap measure aimed at keeping the inspection process moving forward, despite the pandemic. “Every plant understands that in-person visits to validate the findings from the HyC-VIPs will still occur, along with items we can’t conduct virtually, like ATP surface testing and ongoing cart-cleaning sampling,” he said.

Textile Services Weekly contacted several operators who said they’re satisfied with efforts by TRSA and its consultant team to keep inspections going as a workaround during the pandemic. “The virtual inspection process has worked just fine for Angelica,” said Tony Long, vice president-risk management for that company based in Oakbrook Terrace, IL. “Angelica strives to be ‘inspection ready’ at all times, so there really were no material changes from the direct method – other than not having the inspector physically on-site. Similar to the on-site inspections, the virtual inspection process was also comprehensive.”

That process incudes grading the plant against the same standards and criteria as they would normally. Click here for details. Highlights include:

  • Having the inspector carefully examine the Quality Assurance (QA) manual and ensuring that it is, as Corfield says, “a living, breathing document” that meets all the certification requirements.
  • All protocols and procedures must be documented, then sent to the inspector and displayed on a virtual tour. Samples are collected under the inspector’s observation, as usual, and plant personnel will send them to a TRSA-approved third-party laboratory for testing.
  • The VIP meeting program will still collect and assess evidence of compliance with the standards. The only difference is that now online meeting technology is replacing face-to-face meetings.  The VIP document review, technical interview and the physical inspection are augmented by a video plant tour, with follow-on photo gallery submissions as directed by the inspector.

While TRSA isn’t compromising its standards during the virtual inspections, there are a few differences in the methods by which these criteria are reviewed and validated under the virtual program. Specifically, there is a video conference at which all the relevant managers must attend with the inspector to review the findings, including the collection of textile samples for submission to independent labs to test them for the presence of microorganisms.

As effective as they are, P.J. Dempsey, president of Dempsey Uniform & Linen, noted the limitations of the virtual vs. on-site inspections. “The virtual inspection was well executed, and they were very thorough with the review of our submitted documentation,” he said. “However, it understandably was not the same level of inspection as the previous on-sites. Taking pictures cannot take the place of a visual inspection to see if certain processes (even just simple things like rotating the stock) are happening.” But at the same time, he added that, “If the inspector has been on-site before, the operator is known to run a clean/organized plant, the same management team is in place from the last on-site inspection, all the paperwork is in order and nothing looks ‘staged’ in the photos submitted, then the virtual inspection could be a reasonable substitute for recertification – at least during a pandemic.”

Going forward, virtual inspections could serve as a supplement to in-person visits, especially for plants located outside the U.S. that are costly and difficult to access from the U.S. In one example that highlighted cooperation among companies to ensure plant hygiene, Lavartex Sapi de CV, a Mexican operator, collaborated with Carlos Iniguez, a Spanish-speaking quality manager from HandCraft Services, Richmond, VA, to act as an interpreter so that Lavartex managers could complete a virtual inspection with Corfield, who conducted the interview from his office in Canada. “The virtual inspection has been great,” said Lavartex COO Enrique Jacques. “It was fast and agile. The process was also fair and thorough, even more thorough than the previous audit from three years ago. The auditor was pleased. So were we.” Iniguez added that he was happy to help Lavartex conduct an inspection despite the challenges of the pandemic. “I found the process educational and confidence-inspiring,” he said. “In our current COVID-19 world, the virtual inspection is a necessary and relevant alternative for the in-person inspection.”