Sask.-made PPE not easy to sell to SHA, says Saskatoon manufacturer

A Saskatoon business that manufacturers personal protective equipment is hoping to spark a conversation about supply chains in Saskatchewan.

Manufacturer wants to see Sask. reduce its dependence on out-of-province PPE

Benchmark PPE, based in Saskatoon, makes three-ply masks and N95 respirators using 75 per cent Canadian-made products. (Garnet Lindsay)

A Saskatoon business that manufacturers personal protective equipment is hoping to spark a conversation about supply chains in Saskatchewan. 

Earlier this year Benchmark PPE pivoted to making three-ply masks and N95 respirators as the country dealt with a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE).

This was new for co-owners Justin Stuart and Olga Bugrova. Prior to the pandemic Benchmark manufactured supplies for the mining, construction, and oil and gas industries.

But with much-needed medical PPE mainly being manufactured out of province, they saw an opportunity to help solve long-term supply issues for the province.

"Over the last 40 to 50 years, we've become the consumer country. We buy imported things. We used to make things that are durable, and now we make them so they're recyclable and thrown away," Stuart, co-owner of Benchmark, said. 

Stuart and Bugrova have found success selling PPE to businesses and municipalities across Canada, but have faced challenges selling to health authorities, including the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA). 

"As a Canadian, a proud Canadian, and certainly someone who employs people that can count on the product, I feel a little bit challenged by that because it's something that we really need to happen for the long-term, viability and sustainability of the company," Stuart said.

Procuring medical equipment

The SHA uses HealthPro, an Ontario-based distribution organization, to deliver procurement contracts. 

"HealthPro leads the competitive bid process for a variety of supplies," SHA emergency operations chief Derek Miller said in an emailed statement. No one was made available for an interview. 

"They regularly tender for supplies. Those tenders would be posted on Sask Tenders."

Benchmark PPE has the ability to produce five to 10 million masks a month. Since the pandemic began, the company has employed up to 65 new workers. (Justin Stuart)

But for local companies like Benchmark PPE that pivoted to meet the challenges brought on by COVID-19, the opportunity to bid on health authority contracts hasn't come often.

A search on SaskTenders shows the last time an RFQ went out for the type of masks Benchmark manufactures was in 2019. 

"We have been fortunate that our contracted suppliers have been able to meet our demand for these specific supplies. At the outset of the pandemic, we utilized local suppliers for items such as face shields and alcohol-based hand sanitizer," Miller said. 

"In the event we were not able to secure supply through our contracted suppliers, we would look to alternate suppliers ensuring that products meet Health Canada standards for medical use."

The SHA says it currently utilizes three main distributors of health-care products, which are located in Saskatoon, Alberta and Mississauga, Ont.

However, the specific country of manufacture can vary, said SHA spokesperson Doug Dahl.

As of Dec. 21, the SHA had a greater-than-six-month supply of both surgical masks and N95 masks.

"We are currently using about 70,000 surgical masks per day and approximately 3,800 N95 masks per day," Dahl said.

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Redesigning supply chains

Stuart says the complexity and red tape surrounding the distribution system of PPE can hurt local manufacturers. 

"As a small company — and I'm sure I'm not alone in this — if we aren't given a fair opportunity to integrate into these networks of supply, we'll just be locked out in the future," Stuart said.

"Buying patterns have been established long before the pandemic."

Despite concerns about integrating his business into supply chains, Stuart and Bugrova will soon open up a production line for nitrile gloves. 

He said his company will be one of the first Canadian companies to produce the product, during a time when nitrile glove shortages have been reported in parts of the world. 

"That is the Canadian dream. We work together, we create something. Whether it's software or physical manufactured goods like ours, that product creates value," Stuart said. 

Benchmark PPE supplies its products to businesses and municipalities across Canada, but it has yet to sell to any health authorities. They're hoping the production of nitrile gloves will help change that. (Justin Stuart)


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