Located near a sewage plant on the outskirts of Frankfurt, engineering company Holzhauer-Pumpen appears an unlikely pioneer.
But the small manufacturer has managed to keep its factory floor open throughout the pandemic by adopting an unusually aggressive approach to screening for the virus: whether they have coronavirus symptoms or not, its 56 employees are asked to take a voluntary test every week.
“There are no exceptions, not even for our cleaning staff,” managing director Christian Trahan explains from his office at Holzhauer’s headquarters in Karben, a small town just outside of Frankfurt.
As western governments begin to ease lockdowns that have saved lives but crippled economies, more businesses will soon face the challenge of persuading employees to return to workplaces even as the risk of a second wave of infections remains real.
Peter Sewing, the co-head of Obermark, a Luxembourg-based investment group that bought Holzhauer in 2012, reckons that the engineering company’s model could ultimately be a “blueprint” for the wider German economy.
“This can be profoundly beneficial both from a healthcare perspective as well as economically,” said Mr Sewing, a 58-year-old former Goldman Sachs banker.
However, the strategy employed by Holzhauer, which makes pump stations used in sprinkler systems, is at odds with Germany’s official guidance on testing. The Robert Koch Institut, the government’s public health body, recommends that testing be reserved for those who have symptoms or have been in touch with someone who is infected.
That makes Holzhauer’s approach a rare one. Very few businesses in Germany have started to test their staff regardless of whether they have symptoms or not. IG Metall, the country’s powerful metal workers union with 2.3m members, said it does not know of anyone else doing it.
Those companies pursuing their own testing have been criticised for taking capacity from public authorities. Holzhauer said it is not relying on the network of medical laboratories that serve Germany’s doctors and hospitals, but instead uses testing capacity provided by Rostock-based company Centogene.
Every Monday morning, Mr Trahan oversees the testing, handing out kits to staff who self-swab. A courier then delivers the samples to Centogene’s laboratory in Hamburg, which returns results within 24 hours.
Since March, Centogene, which is listed on the Nasdaq exchange and specialises in genetic diagnostics for rare diseases, has converted parts of its laboratory infrastructure into Covid-19 testing facilities.
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Arndt Rolfs, Centogene chief executive and professor of neurology at Rostock University, said that the company is performing 25,000 tests a day and has capacity to do another 20,000.
“We are not crowding out other test capacity,” he said, pointing to the fact that the company is not relying on off-the-shelf test kits that have at times been in short supply.
At an annual cost of €125,000, Mr Sewing acknowledges that the decision to test Holzhauer’s workforce comes with a hefty price tag. It is, he insists, “money well spent”.
Mr Trahan said that without weekly testing it would not have been possible to keep production at full capacity — something the company has also been able to do because demand for its pumps has so far proved resilient. Working from home is not an option while the company is too small to physically separate different teams of staff, he added.
“The frequent tests are the only reason I can still sleep well at night,” the 47-year-old said.
But the expense of the tests is not the only potential price for the German manufacturing group.
Regular and blanket tests for Covid-19 are a potential minefield for employers, particularly in a country like Germany where health data is subject to tight privacy laws and workers’ rights are heavily protected.
Mr Trahan said that staff can opt out of the tests and only employees have access to their results. He would expect an employee to inform him of a positive result because this is a system “based on trust”. No employee has reported a positive result.
But what would happen if someone chose to opt out?
They would have “to put up with tighter hygiene measures in certain areas, like wearing a medical face mask all the time”, said Mr Trahan.
IG Metall said it welcomes Covid-19 tests at the workplace as long as they are truly voluntary and on top of standard health and safety measures like keeping 1.5 metres between workers.
“Participation does not really appear voluntary if opting out is sanctioned by tighter hygiene rules,” said IG Metall.
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However, Ron Wilhelm, a 31-year-old assemblyman who joined Holzhauer two years ago, said that he and his colleagues do not share such concerns.
“I am very grateful about the weekly tests,” said Mr Wilhelm. “Each test result is obviously just a snapshot, but it still helps to reduce anxiety at work.” When friends hear about the option to get tested, “they are always envious,” he added.
Germany has one of the highest Covid-19 testing capacities of any country. But with the manufacturing sector employing more than 7m people alone, Holzhauer’s approach to keep its factory open looks likely to remain a niche one.