NABA Retools Operations, Initiates Mask Production to Fight COVID-19

male employee who is blind wearing a mask at a sewing table

It was already a leader in the production of safety vests, coveralls, and other protective gear, so when the clarion call was sounded for more resources to fight COVID-19, New York’s Northeastern Association of the Blind at Albany (NABA) was pleased to step up to the plate.

Founded in 1908, the NIB associated nonprofit agency operates a vision rehabilitation center providing a full array of services for individuals who are blind in a 22-county region in Eastern New York State. NABA also creates employment for people who are blind through the manufacture and sale of products and provision of services under the New York State Preferred Source Program for New Yorkers Who Are Blind (NYSPSP) and the federal AbilityOne® Program.

In addition to personal protective equipment (PPE), the agency manufactures disinfectants and military supplies. Among the PPE products are coveralls made with Body Filter 95+ material, which protects against particulates as small as 0.3 microns, similar to the N95 respirator masks so critical for health care employees on the frontlines of the pandemic.

“As the pandemic worsened and New York became the nation’s most infected state, we retooled operations and added face masks made from the Body Filter 95+ material we use in coveralls to our production flow, to support the efforts of those on the frontline fighting the disease,” explains NABA CEO and Executive Director Christopher Burke.

Burke notes that since the beginning of April, NABA has produced over 8,000 masks, with more being made every day. Recipients include New York State agencies, the federal government, and local frontline employees.

“We are very pleased to be able to produce necessary supplies for both the state and federal governments as they fight COVID-19,” he says. “We are all in this together and we will get through it together.”

In keeping with its mission to promote employment, NABA has approximately 20 employees who are blind, including seven who manufacture face masks, vests, and related items.

Burke expresses gratitude to the New York State Commission for the Blind, which is working with the agency to supply state government, and the New York Bermuda Lions Clubs District 20-W which has provided volunteers to help with production support.

While stepping up production to accommodate frontline personnel battling COVID-19 is a top priority, the safety of NABA employees is first and foremost on the minds of Burke and his managers.

“We are having staff members wash their hands at least three times a day, wear masks, and practice social distancing at all times,” he says. “Lunch hours and break times are also staggered.”

To ensure that its facility is clean and safe for employees, the building is occupied only four days per week.

“This gives us three straight days with no one on-site so we can do all the necessary deep cleaning and sanitizing,” explains Burke, who employs an outside company for the heavy lifting.

In addition, NABA employees clean and disinfect on two shifts every day and once on Saturday. 

Despite the daily stress of coping with the threat posed by the coronavirus, NABA staff members have pulled together to rally around the agency and its mission.

Diane Hubbard, a long-time employee who sews safety vests, sums up the feelings of many NABA employees who are blind. “It is an honor,” she says. “It makes me feel good knowing that my colleagues and I are making products to keep people safe during this pandemic.”