GM’s Response May Show The Way To Manufacturing’s New Era

In the post-pandemic world, "the rules will be different," says the chief of automaker’s efforts to overhaul worker safety for COVID-19.

How General Motors just pivoted to making ventilators at its auto-parts facility in Kokomo, Indiana, could provide a template not only for how the company gears up its car-making plants but also for how other U.S. manufacturers can adjust to post-Covid-19 realities as they shake their factories from their slumber in the weeks to come.

“Start now and prepare now,” Jim Glynn, GM’s vice president of worker safety, urged manufacturing leaders. “Life isn’t going to be the same going forward. Understand that and accept it. Challenge your team to think differently, and start now.”

GM’s approach in Indiana has involved not only strict physical-distancing protocols but also punctilious attention to cleaning, establishment of redundancies to prevent transmission of the virus, integration of lessons from its facilities in Asia, partnership with union representatives and observation of complex layers of new regulations.

“We’ve created a playbook to clearly communicate what’s required and how you go about doing it, so that every other facility in our company globally can start now – even though they’re not building anything today,” Glynn, who also has headed GM manufacturing and labor relations, told Chief Executive. “The last thing you want to do is start with these things the night before [reopening]. There’s a massive effort going on right now at every one of our facilities.”

Though automakers have been floating possibilities about restarting some production early next month, GM still hasn’t said when it plans to begin cranking up any of its network of U.S. factories, which mostly are in the Midwest.

“We’re going week by week in thinking about it, and it depends on federal, state and local guidelines,” Glynn said. “It’s hard to say when.” In any event, GM anticipates “a staggered and slow ramp-up. You’re not going to flip a switch and go back to where we were six or eight weeks ago. That’s not reality.”

But GM wasn’t shy about committing to build ventilators with Ventec Life Systems, a major supplier of the devices, a few weeks ago as federal and state governments raised the alarm about potential huge shortages to fight the pandemic now – and cited the need to stockpile ventilators to guard against future infections. The company figured out how it could make the Ventec machines; reworked its Kokomo plant; enlisted existing GM employees into a workforce there that eventually will number more than 1,000; and began deliveries at Chicago-area hospitals of what is supposed to be production of 30,000 ventilators by the end of August.

Before GM could begin output, however, the company had to assure that it would be a safe activity for its workers. One of its first moves was to survey its partners in China and South Korea, where some auto factories have been restarted, for best practices in preventing infections. GM also incorporated guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control in the United States, and the World Health Organization.

It came up with a multi-pronged approach that incorporates six-foot physical distancing, requires wearing of masks and sanitizing of hands, discourages workers with potential Covid-19 symptoms from coming to work and takes the temperature of each worker once they’re on site.

Inside The New Rules

“When you’re applying these principles first-hand to human beings, we got a new appreciation of how people are very social,” Glynn explained. “We congregate. We want to catch up with one another, especially if we’ve all been away from work for a while. Practically speaking with human beings, the six-foot rule is difficult. So we’ve introduced visual cues to keep people six feet from their friends.

“But we had to go further and say,’ How do we make that work?’” With redundancies, he said, including sanitizing hands. “And that’s where the masks come in.” Now GM, Glynn said, is making surgical-grade masks at a plant in Warren to support its own manufacturing protocols as well as to distribute to health-care workers around the world.

GM’s Asian operations, many of which have reopened after their countries’ Covid-19 infections peaked, spearheaded the use of masks. “That was the most significant learning” from those plants, Glynn said. “The use of masks for all employees is across the board, especially if there ever are instances where employees cannot be physically distanced by six feet or more. The use of masks helps keep infection from getting out.

“For example, my wearing a mask protects you. You wearing a mask protects me.” GM already requires employees in its manufacturing facilities to wear protective eyewear, which becomes increasingly important now to help prevent the coronavirus from entering through the eyes.

From government guidelines, GM has adopted a three-part questionnaire for employees entering the manufacturing floor. “Employees should ask themselves these questions every day prior to coming to work, and we ask them again when they arrive onsite,” Glynn said. First, “Have you travelled internationally by airplane?” Second, “Have you come into contact with someone with Covid-19 in the last 14 days?” And third, “Are you demonstrating symptoms such as fever, nausea or cough?”

And while GM hasn’t closed common break areas at the Kokomo plant, it has increased the intensity and frequency of cleaning them as well as removed some seating to reinforce physical distancing.

“As we add up all these layers of protection, you’re going to be protected” from contracting Covid-19, Glynn said. “We’ve also increased our visual signage [in Kokomo] so employees know we’re taking care for them, and so they know the next time an area will be cleaned.” Employees even have cleaning supplies available to them personally “so they can additionally clean an area if it makes them more comfortable.”

Representatives of the United Auto Workers have been brought into planning and communication of these protocols, Glynn said. The union reportedly is talking with the Detroit Three automakers about other concerns for when broad output resumes, such as ensuring that any workers who feel sick will be allowed to self-quarantine without losing pay.

Taking into account new health protocols, workers’ concerns and new marketplace realities, Glynn said, manufacturing chiefs should “understand, learn and apply” new demands, rules and possibilities. For example, he said, companies that are used to running a two-shift operation back-to-back may have to “accept that it can’t happen anymore, because you need to clean common areas in between shifts now. You won’t be able to butt them up. The rules will be different, and you have to understand that.”