The new coronavirus is running amok in Alabama. Health officials are concerned a new wave of COVID-19 cases will not level out until after the holidays. That means personal protective equipment is still in high demand. Most people are wearing masks and face shields. One of the other main pieces of PPE is disposable gloves. A plant in west Alabama is the only factory in the nation that makes a certain kind of these gloves.
The snap of a rubber glove often signals the start of a medical exam or even surgery. Rubber gloves are becoming a part of people’s everyday routine as they deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. The only source of these gloves marked “made in America” is the rural west Alabama town of Fayette.
Fayette’s newly elected mayor Rod Northam spoke with us over the phone because the he just tested positive for the virus. He said he is proud to have the SHOWA group’s glove factory in his town.
“They’re protecting people. They’re making gloves that are used in hospitals in a lot of different applications around the world,” he said. “To have a mission where you’re making life safer for others and you’re seeing the growth and expenditure and the expansion you’re seeing here in Fayette, I couldn’t ask for more.”
Daniel White is the executive director of the Fayette Chamber of Commerce. He’s also recovering from a bout with COVID-19. In the town with a population between 4,000 and 5,000, the plant employs about 260. White said most of those employees are locals.
“Probably 90 percent of the people who work there live in Fayette so they’re spending all their money here in Fayette,” he said. “Buying houses, buying cars, groceries, everything they buy for the most part, they’re buying here at home.”
The plant is a large sprawling building that could be mistaken for something other a manufacturing facility. Mike Kimple is the manager at SHOWA. Kimple said the plant has been in Fayette since the 1970s, where it made latex gloves for surgical kits. That changed a few years later.
“[In the] late ‘80s early ‘90s this facility converted to nitrile gloves, so we were the first company to make a disposable nitrile glove,” he said. “Nitrile is basically a synthetic latex. It’s hypoallergenic so any that has natural latex allergies, this was a big deal from them when we introduced it, so we introduced that and patented it as well.”
Walking through the facility you can feel the temperature rise. It is cool outside on this autumn day, but not inside, where it’s hot and humid conditions inside the production area. Kimple explained how the gloves are made.
“We have a ceramic mold in the shape of a hand. That mold runs through a series of dips, liquid dips and the liquid nitrile is deposited on the former, on that hand mold, once its deposited on there it is run through a series of ovens that dry and cure the gloves onto that mold. Its stripped off that mold and you have a disposable glove. Then those molds just continually go around about once an hour,” he said.
Kimple said the pandemic has required an increase in production from their facility. He said demand is skyrocketing.
“[Demand is] incredibly high. We’re backordered now, we’re doing everything we can to expand the capacity we have currently and obviously we’re building new production lines to meet some of that demand as well,” Kimple said.
He said it was important for SHOWA to keep facilities in the U.S. He says the pandemic is reinforcing that decision.
“Our company was committed to domestic manufacturing. We stay committed, and certain now with the COVID situation as it is, it shined a new light on ‘Hey we need to get some of this PPE production in our country again,’” he said.
Kimple said the new addition to the facility has been in the works for a while.
“We made the decision to expand actually in late 2019, so before COVID hit, we built a new factory here, brand new building, the machinery we’re putting in is much larger, higher capacity, more efficient, it’s the latest and greatest technology in glove making,” he said.
If the pandemic continues and the demand for PPE continues to rise Kimple said their new lines can meet it.
“This single line will be able to produce about 600,000 pieces per day where some of our existing lines, the most they could do is 200,000 so just one of these is the equivalent of three of old larger lines,” he said.
The new addition can house up to four of these new lines. The first is set to being production in April of next year.
Daniel White with the Fayette Chamber of Commerce said jobs are scarce across most of the country right now, and it makes him feel better knowing there is a steady source of work in his town.
“The glove plant has been like a, what do you call it? Bedrocks of Fayette, they’re always going 24 hours a day, they’re always full employment, so they’ve been one of the bigger and better employers here in town,” he said.
So, the next time you hear that snap of a medical glove, it was likely to say made in Alabama.
Editor’s note: All social distancing guidelines and precautions were observed in the production of this feature.