Nanaimo’s Harmac mill works to fill doubled pulp order for medical masks and gowns

Mill’s president says extra cleaning in place and workers are social distancing

Production is heating up at Harmac Pacific to produce a special paper pulp used in the manufacture of disposable surgical masks, gowns and other medical products.

Those products, worn to help prevent the spread of disease, are in short supply due to the COVID-19 crisis and the U.S. customer that produces them has doubled its order for the K10S pulp.

“It’s a customer out of the States and we’ve been supplying them for years, but in light of what’s going on in the lack of medical supplies, they’ve doubled their order with us in the last week, so we’re doing everything we can to meet that demand,” said Levi Sampson, Harmac president.

Sampson said the Harmac mill is the world’s only producer of the particular grade of paper pulp used in the manufacture of surgical masks and gowns and that the mill has been producing it since before he came to work there in 2008.

“K10S is the pulp that we’re producing for these medical supplies. We’re the only one that produces it,” he said. “Different pulp mills run different grades of pulp – almost kind of like recipes.”

K10S pulp is made from western red cedar that produces a soft fibre that makes it suitable for the final products made from it.

“It’s been tweaked over the years to come up with the right formula that allows it to go into the medical supplies,” Sampson said.

Ramping up production means Harmac Pacific’s 320 full-time employees will continue turning out to do their jobs while people in other industries are off work because of efforts to control coronavirus spread. The mill is located on more than 100 hectares and is running a program of extra cleaning and disinfecting of washrooms, work stations and other facilities, and the workers on each shift should be able socially distance and maintain workplace conditions that will help them prevent spreading the virus.

The mill’s production output for K10S varies depending on the customers’ needs. Sampson wouldn’t get into specific numbers, but did say he has never seen a doubling of an order.

“That’s why we’ve decided to continue to run. We know our product’s going into surgical gowns and masks and drapes and caps and those kind of things, so for our employees, they’re really feeling like, even though we’re not frontline workers – like the doctors and nurses and paramedics that have everyone’s utmost respect right now – we’re making a product that’s finding its way to those front lines,” Sampson said. “So, that’s why we’re doing it.”

READ ALSO: Harmac mill marks 10 years of employee ownership

The mill currently has an adequate supply of western red cedar chips to meet its production needs.

“Finding chips and affordable fibre is always a concern for us,” Sampson said. “We’re constantly looking into finding supply, right now, especially. The forest industry had been hit pretty hard even before this COVID crisis came about, with [Western Forest Products] and their strike. That’s always something that we’re looking at, but as of right now, we’re getting enough to run the mill and to be able to produce this product.”

Sampson said the mill will do whatever it can to produce as much of the K10S pulp as it can to fill future orders for more if needed.

He also noted the products made from the pulp will also make it back to Canada to resupply medical staff here.

“People should be proud on Vancouver Island that there is a company that’s producing a product that’s going directly into medical gowns and masks at this time,” he said. “We all hear the stories of doctors and nurses running out of the product or they already have, so if we can continue to produce this it should be a sense of pride for people. I know it is for our workforce.”

READ ALSO: Stay informed about COVID-19



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