Factory workers have returned in the past week to make cars in the United States for the country's four major automakers: Ford, General Motors, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Tesla. And each of these companies has published a plan that shows how it will try to prevent these workers from awarding or spreading COVID-19.
These plans are largely of the same form. They are presented in glossy PDF brochures, each of which begins with a letter to the top executive of the company who oversees safety in the workplace. Like every corporate document, they are occasionally in platitudes. However, they all largely describe many of the same basic precautions, including providing workers with personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks or enforcing a physical distance of at least two meters.
However, there are some differences between them. And nobody has solid internal test plans, although the United Auto Workers union (which represents workers in all factories except Tesla's) is committed to it. Since every company inevitably has to do with infected employees – like Ford did this week in its assembly plant in Chicago – it is worth understanding what is on the plans and where they differ.
Ford operates eight US factories for its main brand and its luxury brand Lincoln. With 64 pages, Ford is the longest of the four car manufacturers' plans to return to work. No surprise. Chairman Bill Ford said the company "put as much care and attention into developing our return to work plan as anything I have been involved in in my 40 years of work."
Part of the length of the game book is the result of Ford's inclusion of sample checklists for managers and factory cleaning teams, and the company's willingness to repeat itself to bring home the key points of the plan. Ford even fills some pages with bloated corporate speak (like on page 4, where it describes one of its "truths" as the ability to "face our business challenges directly by tirelessly creating value for our customers and optimizing our fitness.")
. @ Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford:
"We have put as much care and attention into developing our return to work plan as anything I have worked on in my 40 years." pic.twitter.com/l4YAJNo13B
– Michael Martinez (@MikeMartinez_AN), May 21, 2020
The company also takes a handful of pages to create its temperature test log for workers entering the factory every day. This is probably the most elaborate facility of one of these four car manufacturers. Ford employees must stand on an tripod in front of an infrared scanner on their way to work. You need to take off your glasses and hats, and pull down face masks to get an accurate measurement. They have to follow the markings on the floor and look directly into the scanner.
If an employee indicates a temperature that is above the threshold set by Ford (which is not disclosed), they must do one of three things before returning to work. You can demonstrate that your healthcare provider has "clinically determined" that you do not have COVID-19. They can return if they don't have a fever for 72 hours and 10 days have passed since their symptoms started. Or they can return when they have no symptoms and have received two negative test results in succession and at least 24 hours apart.
If there is no test regime, there are gaps in the plans that are so detailed – and the same goes for other automakers' plans – because people can have and spread the coronavirus without showing symptoms. For example, if a healthcare provider decides that a Ford employee's symptoms are related to another illness, they can return. However, this does not mean that the employee does not carry the corona virus.
Even detailed plans like Ford's have holes without robust testing
Ford has all employees complete an online survey every day to "evaluate their ability to report at work". You must provide an email or SMS confirmation that you have completed the survey when you come to your shift.
And Ford describes a number of other precautions to curb the spread of the corona virus in its factories. The main thing is to divide these factories by assigning employees to the entrances and parking lots closest to their workplaces. The company also limits these employees to using the bathroom closest to them – even if it is not what they normally use.
Ford has a detailed temperature screening process, but no test plan.
Ford distributes these jobs over six feet or more where possible. Where this is not possible, the company uses plastic barriers or shields. Workers are given new masks and fresh goggles every day, and some are given full face protection. All visitors, contractors and sellers must also wear masks – unless you are President Trump, who did not have to wear a mask throughout his visit on Thursday. (He was only "encouraged", according to a statement by Bill Ford.) The company requires that all factories supply cloths for at least 30 days (including surgical gloves, safety glasses and face protection, and disinfectant spray and).
Ford has also asked factory managers to postpone workers' shift start times if possible, and is closing public areas such as small meeting rooms and fitness and physiotherapy centers. Cafeterias are also closed, and Ford encourages conference calls and webex meetings about personal interaction.
Despite all this, Ford had three employees test positive for COVID-19 this week. The company's published plan outlines the steps to be taken in this case. First, Ford’s human resources department will conduct contact tracking to find out who may have been exposed. Workers who had “close contact” – defined as longer than 15 minutes within a meter of an infected employee or as “direct contact with infectious secretions” – are sent home for 14 days. The company will either temporarily shut down the factory workers' area or the entire facility for cleaning.
"Remember to laugh!"
Working during a pandemic is stressful and Ford reminds employees that they are “not alone” when they are concerned about their mental health. For this reason, Ford is asking Playbook employees to limit “news consumption including social media” and “manage” their technology by disabling “distracting notifications”. The company suggests that employees "relax with music or a podcast", "try a new recipe" or "learn a new skill".
"Remember to laugh!" Ford writes.
What Ford's plan lacks is a clear strategy for testing its people. Instead, this work is left up to the employees themselves and their healthcare providers. Unfortunately, the company is not alone.
General Motors' 40-page plan is the second longest of the four. Similar to Ford, the GM guide covers the protocol for temperature testing, cleaning, and physical distancing, but does not provide a plan for testing its employees.
GM, which operates 10 factories in the United States with the Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC brands, uses a temperature screening process similar to that of Ford. However, instead of a scanner on a tripod, GM appears to be using a managed infrared scanner. Instead of getting employees to fill out a questionnaire online before they get to work, GM asks them questions when they get to their shift.
GM does not allow homemade masks, but it allows workers to reuse the ones they have been given
As soon as they arrive, workers are given a face mask, except when eating or drinking. Employees may not use “(h) homemade or externally purchased masks” because the company states that “it cannot“ review the appropriateness of the design or materials ”, although in certain cases the use of N95 respirators is allowed. GM allows employees to reuse their masks, but recommends that they be kept in a "lunch-size paper bag" so that they can dry out and be kept away from potential contaminants.
At GM's factories, the company demands that doors be opened to increase airflow and reduce the number of surfaces workers need to touch. GM also recommends that workers use parts of their bodies other than their hands to open doors when they can. Wherever possible, employees are more than two meters apart, although the use of plastic dividers or signs is not mentioned. Where employees have to work closely together, GM says: "Wearing a face mask and safety glasses offers the necessary protection."
GM (and others) have included a section on dealing with stress that recommends reducing news and social media consumption.
Picture: General Motors
If an employee feels symptomatic at home, GM asks them to measure their own temperature before entering. If it is above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, GM asks him not to come to work and to contact his doctor instead. GM encourages employees who feel symptomatic at work (or people who encounter someone who is symptomatic at work) to contact their manager and report "immediately" to their factory health center or one of them to call two provided hotlines.
Employees who have tested positive for COVID-19 are asked to contact their superiors and call one of these hotlines. GM tracks contacts to determine who may have infected the virus. The company does not go into the details of treating positive cases in its return plan. Like Ford, GM also advises employees not to "(a) browse the news, social media, and television," sleep well, eat healthy, and avoid alcohol and drugs.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) – which operates six US factories under the Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and RAM brands – released a much shorter 11-page "return-to-work" package that does some of the same basics as Ford's or GM's covers. However, the FCA's plan deviates from how the company measures temperatures and is generally more limited in scope and detail.
Instead of using digital temperature scanners, FCA provides all employees with a “reusable temperature strip”. The company says its factory workers need to measure their temperatures either with this strip or with their own thermometer less than two hours before each shift. Workers using the temperature strip must hold it to the forehead and hold it in place for about 15 seconds. Your forehead must be "dry," says FCA, and the strip should only be used "indoors at room temperature" without sunlight or "strong lights" and at least 30 minutes after eating, drinking, exercising, or outdoors. The strip is reusable for 30 days.
Fiat Chrysler gives employees a “reusable temperature strip” that they can use before they get to work
FCA employees must then record this temperature on a “Daily Health Risk Assessment” sheet that must be completed before each shift. If the temperature of a worker is 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or more (or if he answers "yes" to any of the other questions on the sheet), he is told not to go to work and must call a company hotline. While the plan did not mention this, the FCA said in a press release that it "installed thermal cameras to check what employees and visitors themselves reported about their temperatures."
Instructions for the temperature strip from Fiat Chrysler.
Picture: Fiat Chrysler Automobile
Upon arrival to work, the FCA factory workers must go through hubs to hand in the completed risk assessment sheet. The FCA asks employees not to engage in small talk or to ask questions "to keep the flow of employees moving". The company encourages employees to slide their forearms through the turnstile and immediately offers hand disinfectants. You will then receive your daily surgical mask. (Personal masks are not allowed.)
According to the FCA, it has implemented a "sanitary process at the start of the shift" for each factory workstation and increased the cleaning frequency in its facilities. The company has held meetings with more than eight employees and redesigned some areas to create more distance. The plan doesn't go into detail about how these workstations have been changed, but images on the press website show how plastic shields are now attached in some areas.
The automaker's guide to returning to work does not include an employee testing plan.
Tesla's 38-page playbook shows why CEO Elon Musk was so vocal about his desire to reopen the company's vehicle factory in Fremont, California. Tesla dealt with a COVID-19 shutdown at its plant in China earlier this year that has been back in operation for months. The company therefore believes it knows what needs to be done to safely bring employees back to the Fremont facility. Knowledge that informs Tesla's playbook.
However, Tesla's game book covers largely the same area as the other automakers and there is also no test plan.
Tesla fought hard to reopen its California factory and published its playbook to show why
Tesla has stepped up cleaning and disinfection in its Fremont factory. The company claims to enforce social distancing, add barriers, promote video conferencing, and shift work shifts to facilitate the separation of workers. Some public areas are closed and one third of the conference rooms are full. The company has also reduced the capacity of the shuttles it drives to the factory and increased the number of total shuttles.
Thermal imaging cameras have been installed at some entrances to measure working temperatures, and Tesla has them do an online health check every day, similar to Ford's. Tesla provides masks, and workers are expected to wear them. However, the company leaves room in the language of the game book so that masks are optional in some places.
A section in Tesla's game book that contains many of the same beats as Ford and GM.
Tesla presents a handful of scenarios to show how to deal with suspected or positive cases of COVID-19. If a Tesla employee has symptoms of COVID-19 or is simply not feeling well, managers are told in the game book to instruct that employee to go home and consult their doctor. Employees who show no symptoms but have had contact with someone who has tested positive will be told the same and will need to be quarantined for 15 days.
Employees who have symptoms and have had direct contact with someone who tested positive (or with someone who is waiting for their own test results) must stay at home for 10 days after illness and three days after recovery. However, if these employees get a negative test, they can go back to work after showing no symptoms for 24 hours. Tesla does not require potentially infected employees like Ford to receive two negative tests.
In positive cases, Tesla will deploy its contact tracking security team. The company explains in the game book that it will also clean the area where this worker is stationed but does not go into further detail.
Like Ford and GM, Tesla says, "(h) Repeatedly hearing about the pandemic can be excessively stressful, so employees are advised to take breaks to" watch, read, or listen to news, including social media. "The company encourages employees to eat well, avoid alcohol and drugs, connect with others, and take time to relax.
Taken together, these plans show how difficult it will be to get the US auto industry back on track during a pandemic. Every company's plan is different, and while some are arguably better in some ways, none are airtight – as we've seen, Ford has already handled positive cases. These four are far from the only automakers in the United States. Here too, Toyota, Volkswagen, Daimler (the parent company of Mercedes-Benz), BMW, Nissan, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Subaru and Mazda operate factories.
Car manufacturers must also address two other issues when they resume production. For one, many of them are dependent on suppliers who have to deal with their own localized outbreaks. If suppliers remain shut down or have to shut down production, this could force US automakers to shut down production. In fact, it is already happening to GM.
Second, the demand for new vehicles had dropped dramatically during the pandemic. Even if everything goes according to the plans of these automakers, nobody may be waiting to buy the cars that their workers make.