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GM Makes Ventilators Now — Which Means Safely Reopening A Factory


General Motors says it will be ready to start producing ventilators at its plant in Kokomo, Ind., as early as next week. To do that, the company has had to figure out the safest way to bring about a thousand workers back on the job. Kenny Malone from our Planet Money podcast says it's a window into the future safety measures we can expect when businesses finally reopen.

KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: Before Matt Collins is allowed into General Motors' ventilator plant each day, he waits in a single-file line with clearly marked six-foot gaps, and then he stands in front of a thermal scanner.

MATT COLLINS: Yeah. It's on a tripod. It's like you're looking at a camera that tells your temperature.

MALONE: Collins says they're still fine-tuning this temperature process, like the other day, when the guy in front of him stepped up to be scanned.

COLLINS: The thermal scan showed that his temperature was 120 degrees, so they immediately just said, maintain your distance. Go down the hall. And he went to the nurse.

MALONE: At the nurse's office, somebody realized, oh, this guy isn't 120 degrees. The drink he is holding in his hand is 120 degrees.

COLLINS: He had a coffee in his hand. The thermal scan caught that coffee (laughter). Yeah, that's what we got to do (laughter).

MALONE: The future of work sounds surreal, dystopian, Orwellian - choose your adjective. But hopefully, it is also safe. Collins is president of the local chapter of the United Auto Workers, and the union helped design these protocols along with Dr. Jeffrey Hess.

JEFFREY HESS: Yeah. I'm the corporate medical director for General Motors.

MALONE: Normally, Hess' job is dealing with things like workplace injuries, but he was strangely prepared for this challenge. He used to be an Air National Guard doctor, where he planned for chemical warfare and infectious disease outbreaks.

HESS: And it was interesting because you're always making decisions in a, you know, make-believe world. I never thought it would ever come to reality.

MALONE: Hess says the basic strategy for getting this plant working as safely as possible boils down to just a few simple ideas.

HESS: How do we keep the disease out of the workplace? And then how do you stop spread within the workplace?

MALONE: So you walk up to the plant. First thing you see is that coffee-sensing temperature scanner at the door. Somebody also asks you, do you have any symptoms? If you're clear, you go to work.

HESS: You get some hand sanitizer, and you pick up a mask. And then you're ready to go.

MALONE: Inside the plant, you wear that mask at all times. GM had one of its acoustic insulation makers switch over to mask fabric, so there are masks. Then there's the cleaning. Workers are expected to wipe down their workstations at the beginning and end of their shift. And then there's the distancing. Workspaces are at least six feet apart, and workers are putting together big parts at once instead of small bits that have to be handed off constantly. Unfortunately, fun stuff like shared coffee machines are not allowed anymore.

HESS: Or somebody bringing donuts, you know, for the entire team. And it's like, well, we really can't do that, guys.

MALONE: Forbidden donuts.

HESS: That's unfortunate, yes.


And then, Hess says, the final thing you have to think about here...

HESS: If you've got somebody who become sick, how do you take care of them, or how do you manage them?

MALONE: Do you have guidelines for managers? If I see one of my employees cough five times, maybe then I should bring them into the health center.

HESS: Yeah, we haven't - I think what we've tried to tell our managers - if somebody looks sick, obviously, you can ask them to get it checked out. If they refuse, you know, then we can take other actions if we need to.

MALONE: Hess says he would like to get on-site testing, but that's not an option just yet. If someone does come down with COVID, GM will send that person home with pay. They'll do contact tracing and then monitor the situation until it makes sense for that person to come back. It's worth noting here that these are not retail jobs. There is no risk from interacting with the public, which adds complexity and danger. But these are the kinds of measures that we may want to get used to.

What's the strangest thing about working with all of these safety things in place?

COLLINS: Wearing a mask all day (laughter).

MALONE: Again, Matt Collins, who says the worst part of the masks is that you can't read people's facial expressions.

COLLINS: You can't see if they're smiling or not or - and usually, I'm the guy that's always smiling and friendly. And I'm thinking, man, do they think I'm OK, or (laughter) do they think I'm being mean or what? I don't know. I can't tell, so...

MALONE: Yeah. Are you like, I got to smile with my eyes; I got to smize (ph)?

COLLINS: Exactly. Yeah.

MALONE: Kenny Malone, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kenny Malone hails from Meadville, PA where the zipper was invented, where Clark Gable’s mother is buried and where, in 2007, a wrecking ball broke free from a construction site, rolled down North Main Street and somehow wound up inside the trunk of a Ford Taurus sitting at a red light.
Kenny Malone
Kenny Malone is a correspondent for NPR's Planet Money podcast. Before that, he was a reporter for WNYC's Only Human podcast. Before that, he was a reporter for Miami's WLRN. And before that, he was a reporter for his friend T.C.'s homemade newspaper, Neighborhood News.
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