Ignite Labs helping N.S. frontline and health-care workers during COVID-19 pandemic

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YARMOUTH, N.S. — Can you hear that?

It’s not just the sound of 3D printers slicing and churning in repetitive precision across the province.

It’s not just the sound of sewing machines rumbling to life in living rooms and kitchens in Nova Scotia.

It’s also the sound of relief from a business that can keep its employees safe while providing an essential service.

It’s the sound of gratitude from health-care workers whose ears are raw and sore from wearing masks for hours during a tiring shift. 

And it’s the sound of collaboration and community.

Reaching out, helping out

While we’re told to stay home as much as possible during this COVID-19 pandemic, not everyone is able to do that because of their work and services they provide.

Ignite Labs is among those showing that even with social distancing, communities can still come together to help others get through their days.

Part of a larger initiative involving several fronts and partners, this hub for innovation and start-up entrepreneurs has put out a community innovation call across Nova Scotia through its website igniteatlantic.com seeking people who have the ability and equipment to create protective non-surgical masks and face shields for frontline workers of businesses and industries deemed essential.

“Many of the industries in Nova Scotia are vital for food production, transportation and infrastructure. It is important that the many workers in these companies that are still operating are safe on the job,” reads the Ignite website.

Combining community and innovation

Yarmouth resident Doug Jones is CEO of Ignite Labs, which has locations in Yarmouth and Stellarton, Pictou County. What Ignite also has is 3D printers, which have been used for multitudes of prototyping. Where there’s been an idea, there’s been a 3D printer solution.

So when Ignite was asked to be part of a working group in the province – that includes engineers, ACOA reps, NSBI, government agencies, N.S. health reps, etc. – using 3D printers to support frontline workers naturally jumped out.

“We have a lot of industries still working. I’m getting calls from these organizations saying, ‘where do we get protective gear for our staff, because they’re working on front lines,’” Jones says. “We were in the midst of creating 3D models for Nova Scotia Health to go into hospitals, but at the same time, I brought up that we needed to be proactive with industry too.”

A request he was hearing was the need for face shields. And so Jones and his son Brad, an engineering student at Dalhousie University, turned to what they know well – baseball.

“Brad and I came up with a design that fits on the bill of a baseball hat,” Jones explains. “It slips on so it creates a barrier in front of your face. Then you combine it with some of the community masks that we’re working on.”

Support for the front line

For IMO Foods in Yarmouth, Ignite’s efforts came as welcome news.

“These face shields are important PPE (personal protective equipment) to allow IMO to keep working and producing food for our grocery stores,” says IMO owner Phil LeBlanc. “These shields were sold out locally and online, so having Ignite use their in-house technology to produce face shields locally on demand, virtually in minutes – not weeks on backorder – is sort of unbelievable.”

IMO has about 50 employees working since food production has been listed as an essential service by the province. IMO produces canned fish – kipper snacks, smoked herring and sardine fillets – that is shipped to local grocery stores and exported throughout Canada, the United States and Australia. But COVID-19 brings an added ingredient to the workday.

“Operating in these conditions is stressful on the employees and we are thankful to each of them for helping in the food security for the country and beyond,” LeBlanc says, noting the company uses recommended safety measures (some of which were already part of the normal food production environment) including frequent hand washing, extra sanitizing of staff areas and production areas, distancing and the use of face shields. The health of staff is also monitored.

“The face shields are key PPE in certain areas of the factory where other measures, such as installation of Plexiglas, is difficult,” notes LeBlanc.

Other businesses are seeking non-surgical masks for their employees.

“We have a network of 100-plus sewers from around the province,” says Jones. Meanwhile, people continue to step forward to offer their 3D printing services. This capacity will also expand to include Dalhousie University, NSCAD and others.

While Jones co-ordinates things from Ignite in Yarmouth, in Pictou his Ignite counterpart Sebastian Green is helping to co-ordinate the 3D printer network there, as well as the network of sewers in that region.


Ear savers: “A game changer”

Ear savers are another item that a network of 3D printers has been busy churning out and Ignite is distributing. The Villa St. Joseph du Lac long-term seniors care facility in Yarmouth is one place where staff is benefitting from ear savers. The ear savers lift the elastic above and away from the ears, eliminating pressure and skin breakdown. This helps greatly during a long shift.

“Ignite Labs has proven their commitment to their community through their insight and ingenuity by caring for those on the front lines,” says the Villa staff in a statement. “What may seem like a small gesture of kindness and thoughtfulness, has a greater, long lasting impact. We are forever grateful for their contribution.”

The ear savers are a game changer for those who wear masks during a long shift. They help to reduce the tension on the back of the ears, as this photo from the lab at the Yarmouth Regional Hospital demonstates. CONTRIBUTED

At the Yarmouth Regional Hospital, the ear savers are being embraced by workers in numerous departments, including in the lab where medical lab assistants who have daily contact with patients to draw blood tests are among those wearing masks throughout their shifts.

Sandra Albert, a medical lab technologist in the lab, says when she saw Ignite Labs was offering ear savers, she got a bunch for the staff. She says in the past medical lab assistants were only usually wearing masks during contact with patients when procedures were happening, but now they’re being worn all of the time.

“The elastic goes right around your ears so it’s very irritating. I couldn’t believe it after hearing, halfway through the first day, that it was already bothering their ears so it’s a big relief to have these,” she says about the ear savers. “I talked to one person today who has been wearing it and she said it was a game changer, it definitely takes the pressure off the ears.”

The lab itself does not carry out actual COVID tests, provincially those are done at the QEII Health Sciences Centre’s microbiology lab, which is operating 24-hours a day. But the Yarmouth hospital lab is still responsible for a lot of the coordination of getting the swabs out to places that are conducting testing, such as long-term care facilities and the assessment centres. They then get the tests to Halifax where they are processed. And then they are dealing with the day-to-day health care needs of patients.

Albert says they were not only grateful for the ear savers, but also grateful that they are being provided to health-care staff for free.

Helping out on that front is Coastal Financial Credit Union in Yarmouth, which has stepped up to cover Ignite’s costs to produce the ear savers for the health-care community.

“Offering to offset some the hard costs of producing the ear savers was an easy decision for Coastal Financial Credit Union,” says CEO Rick Doucette. “Ignite is a local business that has been impacted by COVID-19 and it shouldn’t bear all the costs of producing PPE during a time of crisis.”

Doucette says it’s important for the community to not only work together, but to stick together.

“How well we co-operate with one another will impact the outcome of this pandemic significantly,” he says. “It was great to see Ignite and others step up and repurpose themselves during this pandemic. It’s a great example of leadership and community spirit.”

As this story was being written Ignite Labs said on it’s Facebook page: “We have made the ears of over 600 health-care workers a little happier this week.”

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