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What's being done to keep automakers safe from COVID-19?

worker on an assembly line leans into a car door
Adobe Stock

Automakers and their suppliers are back at work in Michigan. Ford, GM, Fiat-Chrysler and other manufacturers have been working with the United Auto Workers, government, and health experts to avoid potential spread of COVID-19. Not everybody going back to work feels safe.

We’ve been told by health experts again and again that social distancing, face masks, gloves, and hand washing will help us avoid COVID-19. As workers go back on the factory lines, some are worried.

“Well, I think it's dangerous to go back, you know,” said Jason Peek. He has worked at GM’s Delta Township automotive plant for seven years. He says he knows the union and the company have been working together to make the assembly line safe.

“And they said they've addressed some of the social distancing issues, but I'm not really sure how we can do our jobs because there's many of our jobs where you're right in front of someone. Like, in the door line, in door assembly, you literally stand right, right across from somebody. You know, you're maybe a foot two feet from that person and around your face know all day long,” Peek said. 

For people working close to someone else, all the automakers are providing masks and either goggles or face shields, depending on the job.

Steve Delaney is the President of UAW Local 602, the union workers at the Delta plant. He says the way assembly lines are set up does cause concern.

“Because there's places on the line where people are working literally shoulder to shoulder, touching the same part, pushing the same buttons, using the same guns, and there's thousands of them. I mean, we can clean intervals in between shifts, but there's no way you're going to keep people from touching the same equipment,” he explained.

Workers will be screened. They’re to use an app to answer questions about their health each day before going to work. Their temperature is taken at the gate. But, the coronavirus can be spread by people who don’t show any symptoms of COVID-19.

Gary Johnson is Ford Motor Company’s global Chief Manufacturing and Labor Officer. He’s already worked to get plants safely running in China and Europe. He says here the automakers are doing everything the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization recommend.

He acknowledges that some jobs mean working closer than called for by social distancing guidance.

“The key for us is that is having the right material on to protect yourself and employer crossing you if you're inside that six feet, so the mask and the glasses and the goggles or the shield will be the critical part of that,” he said.

Most of the assembly line workers will not be wearing latex or nitrile gloves. Johnson says research shows workers are actually safer using the specialty work gloves required for handling sharp metal parts that they already use.

“What's interesting about that is that people have the gloss that they think they're going to be protected and they actually touch themselves more often and a lot of medical industry is actually tested that themselves. So that's why we're not making latex gloves like that, a mandatory requirement. It's more about the hand-washing and the facial protection,” Johnson said.

The question is whether the protections put in place will be enough to reduce exposure to COVID-19. Will workers keep their masks on all the time? Will they avoid congregating during breaks? Some of the workers are skeptical about the risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. How will they behave?

The only way to know if the precautions are working is to watch whether workers start getting sick.

Steve Delaney with the UAW says they’ll be looking out for that.

“So if people start getting sick, if it looks like the numbers are rising, the UAW is going to aggressively pursue that and force them to shut down. I don't know what the threshold will be, but they're going to be watching very closely,” he said.

Credit Courtesy: Washington Post
Washinton Post-Ipsos polling data.

A recent Washington Post-Ipsos pollfinds the majority of Americans working outside of their homes are concerned about being exposed to the virus and infecting the people at home.

Protesters, some conservative politicians, and right wing media say an even larger concern is the collapse of the economy.

Michigan Radio listeners, readers, and reporters are rising to the challenge every day. If you can, please support essential journalism during this crisis.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
Tyler Scott is the weekend afternoon host at Michigan Public, though you can often hear him filling in at other times during the week. Tyler started in radio at age 18, as a board operator at WMLM 1520AM in Alma, Michigan, where he later became host of The Morning Show.
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