Health-care firms used radio, social media to find missing workers after Puerto Rico storm

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Hundreds of people wait in line since the morning to buy gasoline three days after the impact of Hurricane Maria in Carolina, Puerto Rico, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017. A humanitarian crisis grew Saturday in Puerto Rico as towns were left without fresh ... water, fuel, power or phone service following Hurricane Maria’s devastating passage across the island. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti) (AP)

In the days after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, medical-device maker Boston Scientific Corp. was having trouble contacting its more than 1,000 employees on the island.

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The storm had knocked out cellphone and landline service for many, and some workers left damaged homes to stay with friends and relatives. Several days after the Sept. 20 storm, the company had accounted for only about 700 workers.

"I started losing sleep about the fact that we had 300 people unaccounted for," Brad Sorenson, Boston Scientific's senior vice president of manufacturing and supply chain, said in an interview. "And thinking, 'Are they going to show up on that list of people who were injured or died?'"

So Boston Scientific turned to the airwaves. It began running advertisements on a Puerto Rican radio station, asking employees who hadn't contacted the company to do so by phone or social media. A worker visited the station in person to relay the ad text because it was difficult to get in touch by phone, a company spokeswoman said.

The company also issued social-media and text messages, and dispatched workers to knock on colleagues' doors.

Firms beyond health care also scrambled to find employees. Rum maker Bacardi Ltd. relied on radio ads, social media and word-of-mouth to account for its workers, with managers setting up WhatsApp networks to communicate with direct reports.

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It was a trial of the business-continuity and employee-safety plans that many companies adopt but don't always have the opportunity to test. As Marlborough, Mass.-based Boston Scientific found, unexpected events forced the company to improvise on the fly.

Medical-device and pharmaceutical companies are among Puerto Rico's top employers due to corporate tax breaks the island offers. Efforts to locate workers have been important not only for their safety, but also to help restart operations and avoid disruptions to Puerto Rico's supply of medicines and devices for the rest of the U.S.

Pharmaceuticals manufactured in Puerto Rico make up nearly 10% of all drugs consumed by Americans, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said, citing data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis .

Some companies' plants weren't severely damaged, but "the issue is getting the employees back to work, because these people have been devastated by the storm," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in an interview. He said the FDA is monitoring about 40 critical medicines produced in Puerto Rico to try to avoid shortages.

Medical-device maker Medtronic PLC also used a mix of radio and social media to reach employees, and hired about 40 drivers to visit workers' homes, a spokesman said. As of Friday the company had verified the well-being of more than 90% of its 5,000 direct and contract employees in Puerto Rico, and most had returned to work.

Medtronic said the storm could limit the availability of certain newer products or those that had lower inventory levels before the storm. The company is providing water, food and power generators to employees, the spokesman said.

Drugmaker Eli Lilly & Co., which has manufacturing operations in Carolina, Puerto Rico, sent workers to colleagues' homes and monitored social media to account for its employees, a spokesman said Monday.

Most of Boston Scientific's Puerto Rico employees work at a plant in Dorado that makes wires for implanted heart devices such as pacemakers. It also has a sales office in the capital, San Juan.

The company prepared for the storm by shipping some products off the island in advance, and giving some workers satellite phones, Mr. Sorenson said. It closed the Dorado plant shortly before the storm made landfall.

The two-story factory had been upgraded several years ago to withstand major storms, and suffered relatively minor damage.

The morning after the storm, Paul Martin, the factory's head of operations, drove there from his home 2 miles away. Normally a six-minute commute, the drive turned into a 45-minute journey because of flooded roads, debris and downed telephone poles, he said.

About 50 workers showed up at the plant that morning to help clear debris and find people. More arrived each day thereafter. "It was very encouraging, very uplifting on day one," said Mr. Martin.

Later that day, he drove out to look for other workers he couldn't reach by phone. He found four at their homes trying to clean up damage.

Costas Manganiotis, Boston Scientific's Latin America regional director for urology and pelvic health, was cleaning up his house near the Dorado plant. He had sent his wife and 11-year-old son to Austin, Texas, before the storm, and stayed behind with his four dogs.

Two of his colleagues showed up to check on him, satellite phone in tow so he could call his family in Texas and his native Greece.

The company had counted on using standard delivery services like UPS and FedEx to send water, food and gasoline cans from a supply center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but they weren't immediately available, so Boston Scientific hired a small cargo-jet service to make twice-daily runs to the island, Mr. Sorenson said.

The company flew in IT technicians, engineers and other U.S. staff to help restore operations, executives said.

Boston Scientific also didn't anticipate the extent of the phone outages, Mr. Sorenson said. That forced the company to switch to social media and messaging service WhatsApp to track down remaining employees.

Another obstacle: Boston Scientific hadn't asked its employees in advance to tell the company where they planned to stay during and after the storm, Mr. Sorenson said, making it harder to find them.

To help employees get back on their feet, the company is providing hundreds of generators and fuel to workers so they can power their homes. The company also opened a child care facility at the plant, and contributed $2 million to a relief fund for workers, Mr. Sorenson said.

It took until Oct. 4 to locate the remaining employees, Mr. Sorenson said. Limited production began at the plant in late September, though it is still relying on generators for power.

Mr. Manganiotis has temporarily moved his family to Austin so his son can attend school. He will travel back and forth for work, and hopes to move the family back in a few months.

"This small island has a lot of things that a lot of people care about," said Mr. Manganiotis, who's lived in Puerto Rico for 18 years. The loss of productivity is "really something that cannot only impact Puerto Rico, but also the world."

Write to Peter Loftus at peter.loftus@wsj.com and Daniela Hernandez at daniela.hernandez@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 09, 2017 17:48 ET (21:48 GMT)