Workers relearn familiar jobs as plants reopen with new protocols
Everything about David Sokol’s work routine has changed. Even his lunch hour.
The third-generation Ford Motor Co. employee puts fasteners on Super Duty pickups, Expeditions and Lincoln Navigators. Since walking into the Kentucky Truck Plant in Louisville last week for the first time since the coronavirus halted auto production nationwide in March, Sokol has had to adjust nearly all the habits he’d become used to since being hired eight years ago.
He now sits in the parking lot a few extra minutes before each 10-hour shift to fill out a health survey on his phone. He slips a mask over his mouth and nose and tries to stay 6 feet from other employees without falling behind on the steady stream of trucks coming down the assembly line. And he eats in relative solitude at picnic tables where black plastic partitions wall him off from his co-workers.
“It feels like you’re in elementary school trying to take a test and they don’t want you cheating,” the 33-year-old said.
Last week was a test for the companies attempting to restart the North American auto industry after a two-month shutdown forced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Automakers spent weeks stocking up on masks, reconfiguring plant walkways, decluttering common areas and coordinating with suppliers to ensure they could safely call back workers, even as the national death toll continues to rise.
“We put as much care and attention into developing our plan to return to work as anything I’ve been involved in in my 40 years of work,” Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford said after giving a plant tour to President Donald Trump in Michigan last week.
But a few early hiccups illustrated just how challenging the unprecedented mass restart can be — and how even the most stringent safety measures have their blind spots.
Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant went down twice in two days: once after two workers were confirmed to have the virus and again when it ran out of parts from a nearby Lear Corp. seating factory that had to close because of a sick worker.
Ford also sent employees home early at its Dearborn Truck Plant in Michigan after a worker became sick, amplifying concerns over a lack of mass testing capabilities.
General Motors had two positive cases at its Lockport Components plant in western New York, but a spokesman said the building was cleaned and disinfected without shutting it down. The infected workers were tested before returning to work and notified of their positive results last week after going to the plant.
“It’s in everybody’s mind,” Sokol said. “You don’t know whether the person next to you will test positive. Somebody could be asymptomatic but come in and start showing symptoms at work.”
Employees who spoke with Automotive News said they were still concerned about the threat of an outbreak but were largely adjusting well to the changes inside and outside the plants. Those safeguards include temperature scans, safety goggles and more time between shifts. On the first day back at Ford, team leaders handed out hand sanitizer and lotion, and shifts were delayed so workers could read a 60-plus-page safety handbook.
“The whole thing is like, ‘Is this really going to be the new normal?’ ” said Jim McIlreavy, 47, who works at Ford’s Dearborn Stamping Plant. “It’s not an inconvenience or anything; it’s just upended our whole routine.”
Face masks have been a sore point among workers. The automakers require masks, as do some states, including Michigan, but the issue has become politicized nationally, despite studies showing they slow the spread of the virus.
“The problem is it gets really hot under the masks,” said Malik Ferguson, a 40-year-old machine operator at a GM powertrain plant in Romulus, Mich. “It’s really difficult to breathe because you have the mask that presses down on the nasal cavities, and you’re breathing in warm air.”
The discomfort is prompting workers to take more breaks outside. “The cool air [helps] this kind of free flow through the mask,” he said, “and it doesn’t feel like it’s a mist of yuck that you’re inhaling and inhaling while you’re in the plant.”
While the Romulus plant was shut down, Ferguson volunteered to make masks for front-line workers at a former GM transmission factory 30 miles away.
Ferguson said the masks he wore and assembled there were much thinner than the masks provided to employees last week, and he had been working in a clean room that was cooler and allowed for more airflow.
In Kentucky, Sokol said the masks make it harder to hear co-workers, but he’s getting used to wearing them, especially after buying a band that keeps the elastic straps from digging into his ears over the course of his shift.
In Dearborn, McIlreavy said his ears are often rubbed raw by the face wear. But he soldiers on, thinking of his wife, daughter and sister-in-law, who all work in health care.
“I refuse to complain about it because of what they’ve been going through since day one,” McIlreavy said. “I was out of work for seven weeks before I got called back. There’s no way I’m going to complain about this mask.”
During the shutdown, he volunteered at the parts plant in Ypsilanti, Mich., where Ford is making ventilators. He said that gave him a preview of what the safety procedures would be like at the stamping plant, where he works in material planning and logistics.
He said most aspects of work that could have been problematic had so far run smoothly. Temperature scanners and online health questionnaires have worked as advertised, and socially distanced lines to enter the plants have moved quickly.
“Everybody’s showing an incredible amount of patience, which is great,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who worked really hard to make this transition as easy as possible.”
Returning to life on the line after two months off made some workers feel sore.
“Your body tends to heal” during time away, Sokol said. “Going through the wear and tear on your body again, it’s kind of like you’re a new hire.”
But in today’s world, that leads to new worries: Is my headache or muscle stiffness an early symptom of the virus? Or just normal aches and pains associated with hard labor?
“It’s just the fear of the unknown, of not being able to see the virus,” Ferguson said. “We get here, we’re working, we’re sweating, our body temperature is fluctuating. We don’t know what we’re coming in contact with because we don’t see it.”
That can lead to some uncertainty on how to answer the daily health survey. A worker at the Ford Chicago plant posted on the UAW local’s Facebook page, wondering whether she should report every minor issue and risk being barred from working or enter the plant and risk spreading an illness.
Asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19 remain a threat, punctuated by the Ford plant shutdowns last week. In both cases, workers had passed temperature scans and were on the line before feeling sick.
“Anything can happen,” Ferguson said. “I’m realistic about all of this. Nothing can prevent you from getting sick. They can put precautions into place … but it doesn’t guarantee it.”
UAW President Rory Gamble said the automakers “have more protocols in place than if you were to drop in at your local hospital” but that rapid testing and, eventually, a vaccine are needed to truly ease worker concerns.
“The first couple days were better than expected,” Gamble told WWJ-AM radio in Detroit. “We expected some glitches along the way. We feel we have a pretty solid system in place; we just really have to tighten up controls on the application of it.”Before she returned to work last week, Arlene Williams, a 49-year-old machine operator at GM’s Romulus Powertrain plant, was concerned that the coronavirus curve wasn’t flattening enough in Michigan.
Workers in her machining area are spread several yards apart, and requirements to use hand sanitizer and wear a mask and safety goggles soothed her worries a bit. But with all that’s still unknown about the virus and how it can spread, she was wary of being back on the job.
“If we had our choice to come back, would we? No,” Williams said. “But everybody has a job to do.”
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