It began with a simple question: "Can you make hand sanitizer?"
"We are the Chemistries Manufacturing organization, so this is right up our alley in terms of making products that have chemistry involved. And that's how it started," said Jim Ledford, vice president of Global Chemistries and Supplies Manufacturing.
The inquiry came from Neil Rees, vice president of the Agilent Workplace Services organization, whose team was looking to meet demand for hand sanitizer at Agilent sites throughout the Americas. This, at a time during the COVID-19 outbreak when hand sanitizer was becoming increasingly scarce.
"With many employees at Agilent still working in the field, logistics centers, and manufacturing operations, having hand sanitizer available provides an extra measure of protection and peace of mind," Ledford explained.
Chemically, the task of creating hand sanitizer was simple. From a regulatory perspective, it was not.
"In normal times, producing consumer products like hand sanitizer would require formal applications, inspections and reviews by several federal, state, and local agencies," Ledford noted.
But the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have temporarily loosened rules to allow a broader set of manufacturers to produce hand sanitizer on an emergency basis, he said.
To help, leaders at the Agilent Folsom site were able to quickly assemble a team of expert employees from manufacturing, quality, procurement, logistics, and other parts of the company. That team consulted legal and regulatory staff and other key support resources within Agilent.
"Mixing a batch of hand sanitizer is not complex. But complying with regulatory and transportation guidelines, acquiring pharmaceutical-grade materials, labeling, testing, documentation – that's where our employees really excelled," Ledford added. "The team leveraged the sites' support expertise and chemistry acumen to make this happen quickly and safely."
The more complex issues involved packaging, labeling, dispensing, and shipping. That meant proper production and storage facilities, process documentation, pharmaceutical-grade chemicals, special packaging, labeling, transportation, and permitting.
"All of this had to be verified and/or put in place before proceeding. It's a lot harder than what you think might be required," said Ledford. "Just getting enough raw materials for Agilent was a real challenge."
In less than two weeks, the team created an end-to-end operation to produce and distribute hand sanitizer to Agilent sites in the Americas.
The effort allowed sanitizer to be sent to Agilent production and logistics centers where there had been shortages. It also contributed in a small way to lowering the overwhelming demand for hand sanitizer on the open market.
The Agilent Middleburg Netherlands site followed the Folsom site's lead and is producing hand sanitizer for colleagues in The Netherlands, Germany and France.
"It is an honor to be able to make something that helps the safety of Agilent employees," says Rene Wabeke, the Chemistries site manager in Middelburg. "And employees find it special to use an Agilent-made sanitizer."
The chemists involved in the project dubbed the new endeavor "Project Nightingale" after Florence Nightingale, the Victorian-era woman considered to be the founder of modern nursing because she established standards of care that included sanitation and good hygiene.
"The team really rallied around this," Ledford said. "They're doing it for the greater good."
Agilent employees see it as a way to contribute to the solution—directly helping colleagues in challenging times and also freeing up supplies for others.
"It makes me feel proud—very proud—of all these individuals," Ledford emphasized. "There wasn't even a doubt that everyone would be on board. We have a very committed and loyal team. And as soon as I called everybody together, they were like, 'Yeah, we can do it. We'll figure it out and make it happen.'"