Cleveland, Ohio – With no restart date scheduled, Ford Motor Co. officials discussed how they’ll keep workers safe from the COVID-19 pandemic when production restarts at its manufacturing plants.
“Absolutely, I would feel comfortable with my family coming to work at a Ford facility,” Ford COO Jim Farley said. “I think our playbook is the benchmark, and I completely trust the process we’ve come up with.”
Company officials spelled basic strategies to get people back in plants:
- Self screening – Employees will use a smart phone app daily, answering questions about how they’re feeling and whether they’ve come into contact with sick people. Workers who may be sick will be instructed to go to the doctor for a COVID-19 test.
- Thermal scanning – Workers will walk past an imaging system that will identify anyone with an elevated temperature. To avoid bottlenecks in getting people in and out of plants, temperature-check stations will have to be strategically located, and plants may have to set up new entrances and exits for getting people to and from their jobs.
- Safety equipment – All employees will wear facemasks (Ford has been producing masks for hospitals and had built up its own supply to issue to workers). In areas of the plant where people cannot maintain 6ft distances from each other, workers will wear face masks and face shields.
- Sanitation – Plants will have more hand-sanitation stations, common areas will be cleaned more frequently, and shift changes will be re-timed to give maintenance crews a chance to clean equipment between shifts
“We’ve been running in China since the end of February and proving out all of these procedures,” said Gary Johnson, Ford’s chief manufacturing and labor relations officer. He added that Ford is using lessons from China to ramp up European production next week, and it will take lessons learned there to apply to North America.
Despite the confidence offered by executives at the automaker, they couldn’t offer a timeline for reopening because it’s not really in their hands. Farley explained that Ford can’t reopen piecemeal, only restarting Louisville’s Kentucky Truck Plant to make F-Series Super Duty pickups or the Kansas City Assembly Plant in Missouri to make F-150 trucks and Transit vans. The company needs Michigan to open because large numbers of critical components for all of the company’s vehicles come from that state.
Michigan, especially the Detroit area, has been one of the hardest-hit regions by the coronavirus outbreak, and state officials have not yet given businesses permission to restart non-essential production. Last week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended the state’s stay-at-home orders through May 15, and she warned that it could be extended further if the disease keeps spreading. [UPDATE May 1, 2020. Late Thursday night, Whitmer extended Michigan's shutdown to May 28, 2020, overriding the state's legislature that declined the extension.]
If Ford and other automakers are able to convince the state that they’re ready to go back into business, the next group to convince will be the United Auto Workers (UAW). Johnson said he’s been giving daily briefings to UAW President Rory Gamble, and that Ford is working closely with union officials to develop safe working conditions.
One sticking point has been testing. The union has been pushing for automakers to test all employees to ensure that people who are sick but showing now symptoms don’t come into plants and infect their colleagues. Kiersten Robinson, Ford’s chief human resources officer, acknowledged that the company simply can’t achieve that goal.
“We will not have a reliable and scalable testing solution for many weeks, and it may even be months,” Robinson said. “Longer-term, we do think it’s going to be critical. Unfortunately, that solution is not available to us.”
Ford is hoping to convince the union that testing anyone who might have been exposed to the virus or is showing minor symptoms will be enough.
Gamble said the union understands that 100% testing may not be feasible, and the UAW showed some willingness to accept a less-than-perfect solution.
“The availability and accuracy of tests are fluid, developing issues as we navigate this crisis,” Gamble said. “Our position is that we employ as much testing as is possible at the current time and commit to full testing as soon as it is available. We are also strongly advocating self-reporting and testing for those exposed to the virus or exhibiting symptoms at a minimum, and a stringent adherence to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines.”
However, Gamble’s next line showed the union may not be convinced that Ford’s actions will be enough to protect its workers.
“At the present time there is no restart date,” Gamble said.
Without universal testing, Johnson said strongly enforced mask rules, workspace spacing, and redundant sets of protective equipment (masks and shields) for closed-in work spaces have been effective in preventing the disease’s spread in China, and U.S. health officials have endorse the plan as effective.
Farley said the next step will be hearing from Michigan’s governor.
“It’s really now just getting clarity from our government leaders, because we’re ready,” Farley said.
About the author: Robert Schoenberger is the editor of Today's Motor Vehicles and Today's eMobility and a contributor to Today's Medical Developments and Aerospace Manufacturing and Design. He has written about the automotive industry for more than 20 years at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio; The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky; and The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi.