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Ford signals restart of auto production, as soon as COVID-19 stay-at-home orders lifted

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

Dearborn – Ford Motor Co. on Thursday signaled it is ready to restart auto production in North America, just as soon as governments battling the COVID-19 pandemic give the go-ahead.

The automaker detailed health and safety protocols modeled on practices already being used at plants in China, as well as U.S. plants making medical supplies, that the Blue Oval will implement at its North American facilities as soon as stay-at-home orders are lifted and plant employees return to work.

Ford is leading efforts to manufacture reusable gowns and face masks using their suppliers.

"We've been working intently on how to restart our operations and safely bring back our employees and we're ready," Jim Farley, Ford's chief operating officer, said in a statement. "We have gone through and trialed these processes. We're abiding by our first principles, and we are working with our union and government partners to restart."

The protocols include:

  • Before coming to work each day, employees must self-certify their health via an online form.
  • No-touch temperature scans will take place upon arrival. Anyone with a raised temperature won't be allowed to enter, and will be instructed to visit a doctor to be cleared.
  • Every worker will be required to wear a face mask. Ford will provide its employees with kits containing masks and other items such as disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer.
  • Safety glasses or face shields are required for employees whose jobs don't allow them to maintain the recommended six feet of physical distancing.
  • Facilities will be cleaned more frequently.
  • Hand sanitation stations will be installed throughout facilities.
  • All employees will receive a playbook detailing health and safety measures.

The automaker also will supply personal protective equipment to Ford dealerships.

When General Motors Co. employees head back to work, according to a guide for site leaders the automaker released April 25, they will be asked if they’ve traveled internationally in the last 14 days, have come in contact with a COVID-19 patient in that time, and if they’ve felt sick to gauge their potential risk of having the disease.

Employees who answer yes will be sent to see the medical staff. Employees will also have their temperatures checked upon arrival. They will be provided masks and safety glasses before entry.

Common areas, including entry/exit points and restrooms, will be cleaned three to four times per shift and between shifts. Employees will be given time before each shift to clean their workstations. GM will provide hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes at multiple sanitization stations throughout its work sites.

There will be numerous markings throughout facilities to help maintain six feet of distance. There will be staggered start/stop times and lunch breaks to help prevent congestion in high-traffic areas.

Since it’s possible for high-velocity airstreams to move airborne droplets around if someone is infected and they cough or sneeze, GM is evaluating ventilation systems in all locations to manage and direct airflow.

Meanwhile, Ford officials did not provide a restart date for North American production, saying one has yet to be determined. But the timing likely will be dependent on when Michigan's stay-at-home order is lifted, because so many of Ford's suppliers for North America are based in Michigan.

Right now, the order is slated to end May 15, and industry sources familiar with the restart planning have told The Detroit News in recent days that automakers, suppliers and government officials are eyeing Monday, May 18, to restart production — though that could be postponed to better ensure production successfully resumes.

Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV halted North American auto production at the end of March to help stop the spread of COVID-19. The shutdown has dealt brutal blows to their bottom lines. Just this week, Ford reported a $2 billion net loss in the first quarter, and said it expects a $5 billion adjusted pretax earnings loss this quarter.

Ford's U.S. facilities will all come back online at once, rather than bringing some plants back before others, Farley said on a conference call: "The reality of our industrial system in the U.S. is it's completely intertwined. In the U.S., we've looked at it as a complete ecosystem, and we have to bring up the system all at once."

The automaker will not be able to make COVID-19 testing available to its entire workforce, officials said. However, the automaker has agreements in place with local hospitals and clinics to test employees who are experiencing symptoms of the disease or who believe they have been exposed to it.

"We will not have a reliable and scaleable testing solution for several weeks, and it may even be months, (but) this is a key priority for us," said Kiersten Robinson, Ford's chief human resources officer. "Hopefully in the coming weeks or months, that will be part of our protocol."

In southeast Michigan, the automaker has such an agreement with Beaumont Health.

United Auto Workers President Rory Gamble previously cited inadequate testing as a key reason why he opposed restarting auto production in early May, a timeline the Detroit Three abandoned after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended Michigan's statewide shutdown to May 15.

In a statement Thursday, Gamble said the UAW understands "the availability and accuracy of tests are fluid." The union wants to "employ as much testing as is possible at the current time" and for Ford to "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," he added, "and a stringent adherence to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization guidelines."

Gerald Johnson, head of global manufacturing for GM, previously told The News that testing the automaker's entire workforce would be "impractical." Instead, GM is working with testing labs and will administer test samples to employees who meet certain criteria.

“What we will do is identify people who are symptomatic or who have confirmed that they have been in contact with someone who is a confirmed case," he said. "We will have enough testing capacity to test them and get them feedback in 48 hours or less."

Changes are also being made within Ford facilities. Additional time will be scheduled between shifts to limit interaction between employees and to allow time for cleaning. Work spaces have been modified to allow physical distancing. Communal areas such as cafeterias and meeting rooms will be closed.

Ford's decision on when and how to return to work will be based on several key criteria, including direction from governments and data and analytics on COVID-19 cases. The automaker is tracking virus data, such as confirmed cases and death rates, on a daily basis, in some cases down to the level of city-specific numbers.

The return to work will be a "progressive and gradual ramp-up," Robinson said. For example, plants likely will begin operations with only a single shift. And, the company is not yet bringing back to work spaces the approximately 125,000 non-plant employees who have been working remotely until late June or early July.

In addition to input from the UAW and its in-house data and analytics team, the automaker is receiving guidance on its return-to-work strategy from outside medical experts. "Science and data are driving Ford's return to work, including close collaboration with experts in the field of infectious disease and epidemiology, to set safety standards we are confident will protect employees as they return to work," said Dr. Walter Talamonti, Ford's corporate medical director.

North American plants will not operate at full capacity for at least several weeks, if not months. In China, for example, where plants have been up and running for more than two months, facilities are at about 90% capacity, officials said.

One thing that will not change is line speeds, because it would be nearly impossible to do that, said Gary Johnson, Ford's chief manufacturing and labor affairs officer:  "The line speeds will stay the same ... but there may be certain areas where we have spaces or gaps in the schedule."

Ford is closely communicating with its supplier base to ensure its suppliers are ready to return to production when the automaker does. The company has surveyed more than 1,500 suppliers to gauge their readiness.

And meanwhile, the automaker is gearing up to bring its European facilities back online May 4. In North America, a "small number" of employees went back to work this week "to begin installing equipment and putting in place new safety protocols," the company said in a release.

"With our safety protocols in place with those core conditions," Robinson said, "when governments are ready, we're ready."

jgrzelewski@detroitnews.com

@JGrzelewski

Staff reporter Kalea Hall contributed.