Bobby Hull of Alna bends polycarbonate shields to make face shields as Rick Pelkey of Augusta cuts polycarbonate shields in the background at ProKnee’s manufacturing facility in Whitefield. Credit: Courtesy of ProKnee

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Whitefield’s ProKnee Corp., a manufacturer of industrial knee pads, is now churning out face shields for essential workers in Maine.

In response to the coronavirus emergency and the resulting shortage of personal protective equipment in Maine and around the world, owner Lee Richards finalized a design and prototype for a polycarbonate face shield on April 6 after working on the idea over the previous weekend.

The company began to manufacture the face shields, fulfill orders and send sample products to hospitals and other institutions two days later.

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The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Maine Emergency Management Agency began distributing information about ProKnee’s new face shields to companies across the state that week and the orders started flooding in, Marketing Director Jordan Richards said. Jordan Richards is Lee Richards’ daughter.

In the first two days, ProKnee received 750 orders. The business is now producing approximately 500 to 600 face shields each day, according to Jordan Richards.

To date, the company has sold 1,937 face shields. Among the entities that have placed orders for the face shields are hospitals, fire and police departments, county emergency management agencies, ambulance services, corrections facilities and funeral homes.

The pivot to the face shield came naturally because ProKnee had all the materials necessary on hand and well stocked, except for the clear and durable polycarbonate material that comprises the actual shield.

Once Lee Richards discovered he could source polycarbonate from one of ProKnee’s suppliers, the company finalized a prototype and started shipping face shields.

“After securing a large batch of Lexan Polycarbonate sheets, I knew we had everything we needed to get started right away on a superior, reusable face shield,” Lee Richards said in a press release from ProKnee.

In addition to the polycarbonate, the face shield consists of an adjustable polywoven elastic strap and ProKnee’s proprietary Smartlock buckle, both used in the company’s knee pads, to allow for a custom fit. ProKnee is also using the wick guards from its knee pads to offer a model that includes a detachable sweatband on the top of the face shield.

The company’s release says that after “31 years of customer feedback and actual field testing of materials developed for direct skin contact, ProKnee’s specialized materials were perfectly suited for the task at hand.”

The base model of the face shield costs $10, just enough to cover the cost of materials and labor, according to Jordan Richards. The model with the sweat band costs $13.

The face shields were designed with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines in mind. The polycarbonate shield extends around the sides of the face and below the chin to effectively protect against coronavirus infection.

The company is selling the face masks at cost in order to get the vital gear into the hands of as many essential workers in Maine as possible, according to Jordan Richards.

“Our first priority is Maine. All our orders have been going out across the state. Of course, we’ll open the doors to New England, but our first focus is here, in protecting our people,” Richards said in a phone interview April 9.

She said in a Tuesday email that ProKnee will soon begin distributing face shields to more than 400 locations across the country.

The shift to face shields allowed the company to bring back 12 employees who were laid off in the wake of the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus. Jordan Richards said ProKnee had been operating with a “skeleton crew” of office staff before the beginning of shield production.

Originally, Lee Richards was looking into manufacturing heavy-duty N95 face masks, which provide an extra filter in the form of meltblown fabric and are much in demand in the health care field.

However, due to a global shortage of meltblown fabric, he decided to look to a different form of personal protective equipment that could be made mostly with materials on hand at ProKnee.

Seeing a photo of one of his daughter’s nurse friends, Stephanie Dragoon, wearing a face shield while working at MaineGeneral Health in Augusta solidified the idea in Lee Richards’ mind. He began work on the research and design of the prototype with Dragoon’s input.

For more information about ProKnee face shields, email National Sales Manager Jay Abbott at jabbott@proknee.com or call ProKnee at 800-549-5018.

This story appears through a media partnership with The Lincoln County News.