Jamie L. LaReau
A cacophony of chaos surrounded UAW Local 276 Shop Chairman Ken Hines early Thursday as he rushed to a morning meeting with General Motors’ Arlington Assembly plant’s leaders.
It’s one of many meetings Hines has had this week as he and plant leaders wrestle with how and when to safely reopen the facility in Texas, where GM builds its highly profitable full-size SUVs.
In fact, GM must address that issue at all its U.S. assembly plants, which GM idled in March amid the growing coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re in lockstep with other GM facilities in terms of trying to figure out a date and plan to restart,” Hines told the Free Press. “We’re concerned about (safety) like the rest of America. But we’re trying to figure out now how we can ensure the workforce’s safety.”
Ken Hines is the shop chairman at UAW Local 276 for GM’s Arlington Assembly plant in Arlington, Texas. He encouraged union members for a year to start saving their money in case of a strike. (Photo: Ken Hines)
Hines and other workers at Arlington worry that some areas inside the facility are laid out in such a way as to make social distancing nearly impossible for the 5,000 workers at the plant.
GM shares those safety concerns, admitting it has been difficult to redesign some areas in its facilities to allow for social distancing.
“There are areas there, and in all our plants, that have challenges,” said Kent Eaton, GM’s North American manufacturing workplace safety boss. “But the safest place I felt in Arlington, was at the plant. I wish all those people at Meijer’s would follow the rules. But, I had no concerns at Arlington or about what we’re doing in any of the plants.”
Eaton would know. He is part of GM’s Global Safety Organization and he spent two weeks at Arlington testing and tweaking safety processes to adopt when GM restarts production.
Since implementing those processes starting in late March, the Arlington workers, mostly volunteers and contract workers, have been healthy. GM spokesman David Barnas said GM had “a small number of coronavirus cases (at Arlington) before its current extensive safety protocols were fully implemented, including face masks.”
On Thursday, GM made public its 48-page Global Safety Playbook. The book was written by Eaton and the team in GM’s Global Safety Organization. The playbook will help plant leaders prepare to return to work even though GM has not declared a restart date for its plants.
The playbook is a training guide relying on procedures GM used in its plants in China and at its current medical face mask production facility in Warren and critical-care ventilator production plant in Kokomo, Indiana.
It also contains some best practices Eaton learned in Arlington.
When GM, along with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Ford Motor Co., said it would idle U.S. plants on March 23, GM’s Arlington did not shutter until early April.
Cadillac Escalade vehicles roll off the assembly line Tuesday, June 25, 2019 as General Motors announces it is investing an additional $20 million at Arlington Assembly to upgrade plant conveyors in preparation for the launch of GM’s all-new full-size SUVs. (Photo: Mike Stone for General Motors)
The plant, located between Dallas and Fort Worth, ran for a couple of weeks, on a paid-volunteer basis so it could finish building the previous generation GMC Yukon, Chevrolet Tahoe and Cadillac Escalade SUVs.
Then, contract workers and GM skilled trades employees came in and have been retooling the facility to start building the redesigned 2021 models of those vehicles.
Meanwhile, Texas’ stay-at-home order expired Thursday, allowing all retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls to reopen, allowing in 25% of their listed occupancy. Michigan’s order is due to expire May 15.
That had some workers worried because if GM restarts Arlington in the next few weeks, it won’t be retooled and redesigned for social distancing.
“They have a new body shop and a new paint shop, so in those areas it’s more spacious,” said an assembly line worker at Arlington who asked to not be named for fear of losing his job for talking to the media.
This worker said the plant is being updated in sections with some areas more suitable to social distancing than others.
“But in the trim and chassis area, there’s no way you can do 6 feet,” the worker said. “The jobs are so close in proximity and you’re walking back and forth in front of each other.”
‘See them in action’
Eaton boarded a private flight in Detroit on March 23 with 10 GM engineers. They headed to Arlington to oversee the final production of the previous-model SUVs and to start the retooling process to build the redesigned 2021 vehicles.
Eaton had another motive: He wanted to test GM’s early initiatives to protect workers from COVID-19.
“My thought going to Arlington was that I wanted to see them in action,” Eaton told the Free Press.
Roughly 1,000 workers had raised their hands to finish the SUV production, a far cry from the plant’s usual 5,000-man workforce, but enough to see whether protocols such as body-temperature screening, face masks, health screening questions, new cleaning process, limited job rotations and social distancing would work.
Karen Sparks (left) and John Johnson work on the assembly line at the General Motors Arlington Assembly Plant Tuesday, July 14, 2015. (Photo: Mike Stone for General Motors)
“We could witness them working versus us trying to envision how they would work,” said Eaton, who met with the union’s Hines every few days during his two-week visit.
“We looked at the high-contact areas of where people would gather when Arlington is at full speed and has 5,000 people in the plant and asked, ‘Can we get them in and out safely?’ ” Eaton said.
The initiatives are modeled in part after GM’s Kokomo, Indiana, plant where workers hand sanitize upon entering, have their temperature scanned, review health screening questions all before entering work to make ventilators.
Once inside Arlington, each worker was responsible for cleaning their work area and tools at the start of their shift.
A formal and informal validation process helps keep workers following safety initiatives, Eaton said. Therefore, managers walked the floor at Arlington, reminding people to keep their masks on or hand-sanitize.
“The biggest challenge was when people weren’t working,” Eaton said. “Human beings tend to come together. If the line went down for a few minutes, we’d find six or eight people who work 30 or 40 feet from each other, come together. Or I’d watch people in the parking lot congregate.”
It will mean a lot of coaching, reminding and educating, which GM will do through direct mailings to workers, social media and training on the job when the factories restart, he said.
GM employees report to their first day of work March 31, 2020, at the GM plant in Kokomo, Indiana, where GM and Ventec Life Systems will produce critical care ventilators. Employees passed through a temperature scanning area upon entering the building, before participating in training. (Photo: AJ Mast/General Motors)
“We know people will take off their masks, they have to eat and drink; that’s when we exercise the other protocols,” Eaton said. “So 6-feet distancing is more critical then and washing your hands when you’re going to eat — that becomes more critical.”
Also critical was that employees know when common areas have been cleaned, so GM started putting up signs in restrooms and break rooms that said the time the area was last disinfected.
“You’ve got to address people’s concerns. You’ve got to demonstrate,” Eaton said. “If you do all your cleaning on the third shift and the first shift doesn’t know about it, it doesn’t do any good.”
One the biggest lesson came in improving how GM was implementing the safety steps. For example, the distribution of face masks to employees.
“We’d put together a great process and were high-fiving each other that ‘we’ve got this,’ ” Eaton said. “Then we had 900 people report to work at once and we realized we didn’t have it down.”
Eaton got more people to distribute masks and now has a “Kleenex-like dispenser where a mask pops up.”
‘In the air’
Beyond the actual safety protocols, Dr. Jeffrey Hess, GM’s corporate medical director, researched the virus itself and will educate workers on its true risks.
“This virus is mainly airborne,” said Hess. “So most likely it’s contagious when people come into close contact with another and share the same air space and inhale it.”
Catching the coronavirus by touching something someone else touched, say a vehicle traveling down an assembly line, is possible, but not likely especially if workers regularly wash their hands and avoid touching their face, Hess said.
Dr. Jeffrey Hess of General Motors’ corporate medical director. (Photo: John F. Martin for General Motors)
“This isn’t absorbed through the skin,” Hess said. “The real risk is what’s coming through the air.”
That is why wearing face masks and social distancing are the best ways to combat it. Hess said GM’s plants in South Korea have been running throughout the pandemic and “we never had a case there yet.”
But he said all workers in South Korea wear face masks and they wash their hands consistently.
Still, the UAW has said early May is too soon to safely restart factories. UAW President Rory Gamble has said the only litmus test that should matter is whether a person would feel confident sending their child or family in to the plant. Hess said he’s done just that.
“My son went to Kokomo. He’s an engineer for GM. He called me and asked if I was concerned he was going and asked what he should do to protect himself,” Hess said. “I told him all the protocols we put in place. I would never want anything to happen to him, but I was very comfortable with him going there.”
But for local union boss Hines, caution still rules and the meetings will carry on.
“We’re looking at the proposals and the CDC guidelines,” Hines said. “Then, we’ll go from there.”
More: UAW strikers in Texas watch Detroit as union leaders meet with GM
Contact Jamie L. LaReau: 313-222-2149 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jlareauan. Read more on General Motors and sign up for our autos newsletter.
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