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In the Hot House: Solving Plant Challenges (Part 1)

Often hot, humid, loud, and claustrophobic, explore two drycleaning plants

CHICAGO — You might say that catacombs have nuthin’ on some drycleaning plants. The plant can be all at once: Hot! Humid! Noisy! Claustrophobic!

We’re getting through COVID-19 and working to get on the other side of it. We’re looking at the garment care plant in general in this article. As work gets processed, all the while team members have to do their job, and deal with the historically loud, steamy, cramped confines of plant workspaces.

Two owners, one from Tennessee and one from Texas, are going to tell us how they take these challenges seriously and work tenaciously, and with care for their team members, to solve hot house conditions.

For the first of our two Hot House operators, we visit Alan and Rhonda Wernick, who became the proud owners of Oakwood “The Greener” Cleaners in April, 2011. They have 28 employees between production, route service, maintenance and customer service.

What do they think of working conditions today in the drycleaning plant and the stressors at play?

Rhonda Wernick relates that: “In an effort to operate efficiently, maximize space utilization and to minimize physical exertion of production staff, many dry cleaners attempt to squeeze as much equipment as possible into a limited space.”

She adds that in some situations, the impact on staff can be exacerbated by overstaffing work space or poor quality of air or temperature and that can lead to employee fatigue, poor quality and inefficiency.

At their business, Oakwood Cleaners, like many other dry cleaners, she notes that, “We are production-space challenged but we do attempt to combat employee stress in several ways.

“We assign each production employee a primary function that gives them a feeling of ownership and belonging,” Wernick says, “as well as making them comfortable within their designated work space.”

Also, she says, they organized equipment efficiently to reduce the employees movement when the task requires more than one machine or procedure. They provided rubber mats to reduce foot and leg fatigue. They insulated steam pipes and traps to reduce heat and humidity, and they air conditioned their plant to help keep staff energy up.

“We also make sure our staff are allowed breaks throughout the day to get some fresh air or sit in our break room to eat or relax. We exclusively use GreenEarth® solvent so there is no odor or harmful chemicals to hurt our staff or the earth around us,” Rhonda indicates.

She adds that: “Precautions are taken with some spotting agents, such as gloves, masks or eye gear to help prevent toxins from entering the body.”

Wernick talks specifically about their plant area: “Production space is a major issue that affects our operation. To free up production space, we rely extensively on both assembly and storage conveyors to more efficiently use our available space.”

She notes that, “The assembly conveyor automatically matches our orders prior to bagging, reducing errors, saving time and reducing space requirements. The storage conveyor is used to rack all completed tickets that will leave the production facility. This conveyor stores the orders near the ceiling and allows the space below to be used for servicing items in process.”

Wernick explains that repetitive motion can be a problem for their pressers as well as their other staff. “We are working on ways to help them such as an anti-gravity system to reduce weight to our staff using irons on repetitive tasks.”

One of the challenges in any plant is matching people to their skill comfort for greatest efficiency and Wernick shares an example of their solution:

“We had a wonderful young woman working as a CSR. Our customer service manager noticed she was having a difficult time keeping focused while marking-in. We gave her an opportunity to work in production on the weekends, and she excelled.

“We offered her a full-time position in production and our production manager worked with her to train her in the laundry department as well as sorting items in preparation for pressing. She is excelling and is eager to learn everything about the production department,” Wernick notes.

She points out that: “This is a great example of recognizing that the job might not fit the individual and moving them to another area to be able to retain a great employee.”

Is the plant today getting better designed; giving more thought to helping alleviate stressors?

Wernick believes with more modern technological advances on drycleaning equipment that today’s plant is becoming more efficient and a less stressful place to work. As it has become more difficult and more expensive to attract quality staff, dry cleaners realize that a good working environment is required to acquire and hold onto them, she relates.

“This not only includes the physical conditions of the plant, but also the intangibles such as communication, camaraderie, sense of belong and benefit package,” she says.

She shares tips for helping other owners solve common hot house issues.

Wernick says: “If possible, add some kind of cooling, whether it be air conditioning or watercooled air. We have put large fans in place that help move the air.”

Also, Wernick notes, they try to cut down on lint building up on their equipment. “We are on a constant lookout for steam leaks or bad traps not only to eliminate energy waste, but to help keep the environment comfortable for employees.”

Finally, Wernick reminds you to, “Think outside the box and be creative. Approach problems as challenges. We do this at Oakwood Cleaners and as a team. We work together to provide the most up to date working environment possible for our staff.”

Approach challenges as a team effort. Those are sound words in today’s world as we all face the challenges of the recent coronavirus.

Check back next time in the conclusion when we go South by Southwest to visit with our second owner, who talks about all the dynamic personalities on her “hot house” team.

Check back Thursday for the conclusion.