General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler are currently working with the state of Michigan and the United Auto Workers union to implement a plan for eventually getting their vehicle assembly lines back up and running. The Detroit Big Three plan to provide workers with PPE such as face masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 once UAW workers do get back to work, but experts are warning that an over-reliance on PPE could be detrimental.
Speaking to Reuters, Rick Neitzel, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan and health advisor to the UAW, said the medical community “always put protective equipment last (on the list of options),” when working to prevent the spread of a disease.
“Not because it’s ineffective, but by the time you get down to that level you’re relying on the worker to understand how and when and where to use that protective equipment,” he said.
Neitzel is part of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s COVID-19 task force, which is currently looking at ways the state could re-open and what kind of safety protocols it should put in place when it does. In addition to his apprehensions about relying too much on PPE, Neitzel is also concerned about the tight workspaces in vehicle assembly plants.
“If we have three people inside a car trying to get a door on, that’s a very dense workplace,” he explained. “Just giving them PPE is not going to cut it.”
GM is looking to its assembly plants in China and South Korea to help formulate a strategy for keeping workers safe on the job. GM’s Chinese plants underwent a lengthy shutdown in the winter before coming back online in March, while its South Korean plants also came back online recently.
“We’ve learned through our execution of those protocols with over 40,000 people globally,” GM spokesman Gerald Johnson told Reuters. “All these employees are operating with these new protocols in place, with absolute success.”
Some strategies automakers may implement to keep workers safe include taking worker’s temperatures when they arrive on site, having them fill out health questionnaires and placing plastic curtains or dividers between them. The UAW also wants workers to be able to self-quarantine without losing pay, as workers who believe reporting symptoms will lead to them losing money may be apprehensive to do so.
UAW boss Rory Gamble said this week it does not believe it’s safe to reopen U.S. auto assembly plants in early May, however, and wants automakers to wait until later in the year.
“We have not done enough testing to really understand the threat our members face,” Gamble said. “We want to make sure the scientific data is supportive and every possible health protocols and enhanced protections are in place before UAW members walk into the workplace.”