Back-To-Work Day Tests Auto Industry’s Covid-19 Protocols

OEM and supplier leaders are confident as restart of production involves entire new ‘playbooks’ for health and safety.

Today’s great re-cranking of the U.S. automotive manufacturing base represents one of the biggest bets so far on a re-opening of the global economy since the beginning of the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

And it’s being fervidly yet cautiously led by CEOs and their top lieutenants across the U.S. auto industry, demonstrating their individual leadership philosophies and management personalities—even as they’re mounting a huge collective effort to get American commerce restarted while still recognizing the need for physical distancing to contain transmission of the disease.

Automaker chiefs are among the leaders, with General Motors CEO Mary Barra co-authoring the company’s “playbook” guiding plants and people for restarting, Ford CEO Jim Hackett detailing his factories’ efforts in a Yahoo interview, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk infamously mounting the barricades to get his plant in California re-opened.

Meanwhile, heads of Tier One automotive suppliers are there in tandem with their OEM colleagues. Lear CEO Ray Scott published one of the industry’s first re-start guides, the 80-page “Safe Work Playbook,” early last month when the idea of returning to work in Michigan still seemed very distant for employees of the Southfield, Michigan-based company. And Magna Exteriors president Grahame Burrow told Plastics News that his company’s Aurora, Ontario-based parent, Magna International, created a nearly 60-page “Smart Start Playbook.”

“I’m definitely confident that we’ve done everything we can to put plans in place while we shut down to protect our people,” Scott told Crain’s Detroit Business.

All of these playbooks have much similar advice: re-spacing of work where possible, wearing of masks, punctilious and redundant cleaning regimens, temperature checks at the door, and isolating and contact-tracing employees shown to be infected with the virus. Fiat Chrysler has contracts with hospitals in four states to test symptomatic workers; Ford has contracted with medical centers in four cities; and GM has on-site testing capability at most locations, according to the Wall Street Journal.

For most OEMs and big suppliers, a major reason that they’ve been ready for this week with detailed playbooks is that they’ve already had experience with prior factory re-openings in Europe and, especially, Asia.

But each automaker is coming up with its own twists as well; Ford and GM, for example, have been learning about the effectiveness of safety and health protocols while gearing up plants to make pandemic-fighting equipment such as respirators and ventilators.

“Some of the ‘whats’ applied pretty well for the couple hundred people entering the site” at GM’s Kokomo, Indiana, electronics plant, which it refitted to produce ventilators, said Jim Glynn, GM’s vice president of worker safety. “But it gets more difficult when you’ve got 1,000 people coming into a plant for a shift. So we are scaling up our approach so that, instead of just one entrance, we are duplicating our [screening] efforts at two or three entrances to the plant.

“We’re manufacturers – all we do is look at process flow and cycle times and bottlenecks, and so we apply that knowledge and experience to something as simple as site entry.”

The need for new protocols, redesign of many plant-floor processes, and an overall abundance of caution can be counted on to slash productivity that most auto plants enjoyed pre-Covid 19.

“I’m not going to do anything in respect to putting production over people,” said Lear’s Scott. “If we need to shut down again, we’ll shut down. If that means we can’t produce to our release schedules, then we won’t. We are going to make sure our people are safe.”

Yet GM’s Glynn said that he expects productivity to rise rapidly after an initial orientation period. Even something as simple as donning a mask can pose a complication to an auto worker who wears glasses – or, as many do, safety glasses – by fogging them, for example. “But we’ve learned tips and tricks to prevent that from happening,” he said. “We’re doing all of these things to protect people and help them be comfortable in the workplace. Once they understand that, productivity takes care of itself pretty quickly.

“Everywhere we’ve put this into place,” such as plants in Asia, Glynn said, “people get on it it and get back to normal productivity. They like the routine, they have a sense of accomplishment, and it feels comfortable for them to be back at work.”