One of the two Puritan Medical Products factories in Pittsfield that produce millions of swabs to test for COVID-19 was evacuated Thursday night after employees reported an odor and several complained of trouble breathing. Friday morning, the issue was identified as a broken heater putting out carbon monoxide, according to Pittsfield Fire Chief Bernard Williams.

The Pittsfield Fire Department received a call around 10:15 p.m. Thursday night that Emergency Medical Services was on the way to the Puritan factory for a person with difficulty breathing. When the department arrived, the factory had been evacuated. Several people said they thought they smelled propane, others said they smelled something else. Several people reported headaches, nausea and trouble breathing.

The fire department went in with a four-gas meter, but got normal readings. Upon the advice of EMS and the fire department, all staff were sent home. Five people were taken to the hospital.

This second Pittsfield factory was funded by $51.2 million in CARES Act funding. Cianbro collaborated with Puritan to rebuild the former San Antonio Shoe site at 206 SAS Drive to increase domestic capacity to produce materials to combat COVID-19.

Friday morning, a contractor and a technician from the air handling company determined that the issue was a malfunctioning heater that was putting out carbon monoxide. Virginia Templet, director of marketing for Puritan, said that there was a gas nozzle in the heating and cooling system on the roof that had been improperly installed. The nozzle has been fixed and the other nozzles were checked and confirmed to be functional.

“One gas nozzle on top of the roof was just improperly installed which has since been fixed and updated,” Templet said. “That’s what caused a few of the employees to get light-headed and the emergency crews to be called, but everything is fine now.”

The factory makes medical swabs that are used in COVID-19 tests, and because of that the air in the factory is completely changed out every two to four minutes. That process is why the fire department did not detect the carbon monoxide Thursday night.

“The reason we got no readings is that the air in that particular area is changed out every two to four minutes,” Williams said. “So unless the heater was running there was nothing there.”

Similarly, it took employees a while to feel the effects of the carbon monoxide because they were only exposed to it when the heater was running.

“Our employees’ safety is our utmost importance and everyone is OK, which is all that we care about,” Templet said.

Puritan developed its first swab-manufacturing plant in Pittsfield at 129 North Main St. The $75.5 million to fund the rebuilding of the factory came from Defense Protection Act funds included in the CARES Act. That building was used for years by United Technologies to produce smoke alarms.

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