April 9, 2020 / 1:55 AM / 2 months ago

Automakers push to reopen plants with testing and lots of masks

MILAN/DETROIT (Reuters) - Global automakers reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic are accelerating efforts to restart factories from Wuhan to Maranello to Michigan, using safety protocols developed for China and U.S. ventilator production operations launched in recent weeks.

Certain safety measures differ from manufacturer to manufacturer. Italian sports car maker Ferrari NV (RACE.MI) said on Wednesday it would offer voluntary blood tests to employees who wanted to know if they had been exposed to the virus.

General Motors Co’s (GM.N) head of workplace safety, Jim Glynn, told Reuters on Wednesday GM is not persuaded blood tests are useful. But Glynn said GM has studied and adapted measures taken by Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O) to protect warehouse workers, such as temperature screening to catch employees with fevers before they enter the workplace.

Auto manufacturers and suppliers are converging on a consensus that temperature screening, daily health questionnaires, assembly lines redesigned to keep workers 3 to 6 feet (0.9 m to 1.8 m) apart, and lots and lots of masks and gloves can enable large-scale factories to operate safely.

“We know the protocols to keep people safe,” Gerald Johnson, GM’s executive vice president for global manufacturing, told Reuters in an interview. GM has relaunched vehicle plants in China and kept factories running in South Korea, he said.

GM has not said when it will reopen assembly plants in the United States. Other automakers are putting dates out in public, even though health officials and federal and state policymakers are wary of lifting lockdowns too soon.

“You see vehicle manufacturers ... putting a stake in the ground,” said Brian Collie, head of Boston Consulting Group’s automotive practice. By setting a public date to restart production, they signal suppliers to get ready to ramp up, he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the global auto industry into the worst tailspin since the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Consumer demand for vehicles has collapsed as governments have enforced lockdowns in China, and then in Europe and the United States. For the Detroit automakers and their suppliers, the shutdown of profitable truck and sport utility vehicle plants in North America has choked off cash flow.

In Europe, major automakers have said they hope to begin building vehicles again in mid-to-late April. In the United States, several big automakers, including Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV (FCHA.MI) (FCAU.N), Honda Motor Co Ltd (7267.T) and Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T), are aiming to restart production during the first week of May.

Fiat Chrysler (FCA) and unions are discussing plans for beefed-up health measures at Italian plants to pave the way for production to restart as soon as the government eases a national lockdown due to expire on April 13, unions said on Wednesday.

Among the proposals from Fiat Chrysler’s Italian unions: move meals to the end of shifts, allowing employees to chose to avoid canteens, eat their food elsewhere and leave half an hour earlier without losing pay.

FCA did not comment on specific measures.

In the United States, some non-union automakers have also said they hope to restart vehicle plants as soon as next week.

Tire maker Bridgestone said on Wednesday it plans to restart U.S. production on April 13.

But the Trump administration has said people should continue to practice social distancing until April 30.

VENTILATOR ASSEMBLY

For the Detroit automakers, the United Auto Workers union will play a key role in deciding when and how plants will restart.

UAW President Rory Gamble said in a statement on Wednesday the union is in “deep discussions with all three companies to plan ahead over the implementation of CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] safety standards and using all available technologies to protect all UAW members, their families and the public.”

Among the union’s concerns is that members who report being ill can take time away from work without penalty, Gamble added.

The UAW has supported GM and Ford Motor Co’s (F.N) efforts to launch production of ventilators in U.S. plants - operations that have allowed the companies and the union to road-test safety measures at small scale.

At GM’s ventilator assembly plant in Kokomo, Indiana, workers and managers have been fine-tuning details such as when employees are handed masks, and when they step in front of a temperature screening device.

FILE PHOTO: Employees work on the production line of a new medical device called OxyGEN, a respirator to be sent to hospitals, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at the SEAT car factory of Martorell, near Barcelona, Spain, April 7, 2020. REUTERS/Nacho Doce/

At first, ventilator assemblers in training at Kokomo walked down a hall before getting a mask, said Debby Hollis, one of the UAW-represented workers. Last week, she said, “They met us at the door and had us get in the masks there.”

The time workers spend putting on extra protective gear, the time spent doing extra cleaning, and spreading workers out on assembly lines designed to have one vehicle roll off the end every 60 seconds could undercut productivity.

“If we can protect employees we can get work done,” said Johnson, the GM manufacturing chief. “The magnitude of the incremental cost is irrelevant. Costs will be managed.”

Reporting by Giulio Piovaccari in Milan, David Shepardson in Washington and Nick Carey and Joseph White in Detroit; Writing by Joseph White; Editing by Matthew Lewis

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