In another sign of the automotive industry actively pitching in to help battle the coronavirus pandemic, General Motors started training employees to produce ventilators at its components plant in Kokomo, Indiana.
GM is partnering with Seattle-based Ventec Life Systems to ramp up production of the much-needed medical devices used in hospitals and other facilities to help COVID-19 patients. The first set of UAW volunteers are being trained now. The workers will number as many as 1,000 when the site is at full production.
The company joins Ford, Fiat Chrysler, Toyota, Tesla and other automakers in producing not only ventilators, but also respirators, face masks and other products first responders need.
“Every ventilator we build can help save lives, and GM’s global supply base and manufacturing teams, the UAW, and the Kokomo community are working with passion and unwavering commitment to get the job done,” said Gerald Johnson, GM executive vice president, Global Manufacturing.
“People have moved mountains to help increase production of Ventec’s critical care ventilator and we are just weeks away from delivering these lifesaving devices. I have never seen anything like it in my career.”
Despite criticism from President Donald Trump, who felt the automaker wasn’t moving quickly enough and invoked the Defense Production Act compelling GM to make ventilators, the automaker began the process of going from nothing to developing a production process and implementation of that in just over two weeks.
Not only did the company need to work with Ventech to create a design that allows GM to set up the plant to produce the machines, it also needed workers to come in and assemble them — at a time when others are being told to stay home in order to be safe.
“I have family all across the country, so (COVID-19) has impacted everybody that I know and love,” said Debbie Hollis, a member of UAW Local 292 and a Kokomo resident. “I’m grateful that I get a chance to do my part and be a part of something … we are modern-day Rosie the Riveters.”
Hollis and the production team, which will grow to more than 1,000 men and women, including people who already work for GM and new hires from the Kokomo area, are also gaining hands-on exposure to Ventec’s ventilator. Mass production begins in mid-April. Production will quickly scale up to 10,000 critical care ventilators or more per month.
The automaker and UAW began to formulate and implement a plan to ensure the safest possible production environment for the workers, who volunteered to take on the task. Remaining safe involves several steps, which are based on CDC-recommended procedures, including:
- Everyone arriving for work will be required to sanitize their hands immediately upon arrival and have their temperature checked with a non-contact thermometer before entering the job site.
- Everyone will work their shift wearing medical-grade protective masks, including masks produced at GM’s Warren, Michigan facility.
- A 30-minute interval between shifts to allow employees to clean their workstations when they arrive and again before they leave.
- Signage throughout the facility reminding team members to practice social distancing.
- Each workstation will be manned by one person, and each workstation will be spaced at least six feet apart.
- Cleaning crews will clean and sanitize common touch surfaces such as door handles, as well as common areas, at least three times per shift.
Initially, production will begin with one shift with two more added after they complete their training. To further ensure the safety of the workers, each shift will enter and exit through a different door to minimize social contact.
“The men and women building these ventilators raised their hands to help save the lives of people suffering from COVID-19,” said Dr. Jeffery E. Hess, GM corporate medical director. “We will create a safe workplace using CDC guidelines and scientific data.”
As it has at Ford, the UAW has been involved in the process, including the development of the safety procedures.
“(T)he UAW has worked with GM to put in place stringent CDC health and safety protocols,” said Terry Dittes, vice president, UAW-GM Department. “Our goal is to make sure that each and every day, people return home to their families and communities safe and healthy. We applaud their courage in volunteering in our nation’s time of need, and we commend GM for working with the UAW to save lives across this country.”