Flint, Mich. — When auto supplier Lear Corp. penned and then published its "Safe Work Playbook" on April 6, the idea of returning to work in Michigan seemed a distant reality. The state's daily COVID-19 numbers remained on the rise, recording more than 1,500 new cases and 110 deaths. The curve was not going to flatten for another three weeks.
The company has suffered casualties. At least 13 people died from an outbreak at its plant in Juárez, Mexico. Others have fallen ill across plants in the U.S. prior to Lear shutting down operations last month.
But Lear had reopened plants in China, including four locations in the epicenter of Wuhan, two weeks earlier in late March and would reopen plants in South Korea, Italy, Spain and Germany throughout April. Lear released an updated version of its playbook on April 27. The 80-page document is the culmination of what it learned and how it implemented health protocols and created a framework to reopen plants and do so with employee safety at the forefront.
Those protocols include strenuous cleaning regimens, temperature checks, plexiglass guards in high-traffic areas and more. The company is even testing new technologies, such as thermal cameras that can monitor employees' temperatures on the shop floor in real time.
CEO Ray Scott calls it a living document, one that's consistently updated with lessons learned from each plant reopening. But it's also a document about living ... and how and whether the broader workforce can remain healthy without a cure for the COVID-19 pandemic that's claimed the lives of nearly 90,000 Americans.
A few days before roughly 225 of the plant's 675 employees returned to work May 18, Crain's Detroit Business, a sister publication of Plastics News, sat down at the plant with Scott, 54, during an "open house" for plant production leaders in Flint to acclimate them with the new safety protocols.
Q: Look, I'll be honest, I'm nervous about being in a plant right now. Are you?
Scott: I'm much more comfortable than I used to be. I can appreciate what you're saying because when I was getting back into it I kept thinking, 'This doesn't feel right.' But I don't have those anxieties anymore. I'm more focused now and I'm definitely confident that we've done everything we can to put plans in place while we shut down to protect our people. I'm not going to do anything in respect to putting production over people. If we need to shut down again, we'll shut down. If that means we can't produce to our release schedules, then we won't. We're going to make sure our people are safe. With that mentality and the procedures we've put in place, I do feel confident. We, as a company and business, can't stop the virus. But with the right protocols, and we've already proven this, we can stop the spread within a plant. The feedback we're getting back from employees, they feel safer at work than they do in some cases at home.
Q: You were the first company, at least to my knowledge, to come out with a reopening guide. Were you nervous about putting that out and being wrong?
Scott: I had concerns, especially in trying to take a leadership position in an area where people could criticize quite a bit on how it's not a failsafe or that the spread of the virus still happened. I had a lot of conversations with our general counsel all the way to the day before we released it because of those concerns. But we did put a disclaimer in there. This is a repository of what we've learned. We have no ego with it. If we find a better practice, we'll update our playbook just as quickly. But I think the thing that led to my final decision was that it was an incredible piece of work from the team. If one company doesn't understand the amount of work it takes to run safely, then the whole supply chain is in trouble. If one goes down, we could all go down. In the best interest of all of us, if we're sharing ideas, the better we'll be. It's been downloaded some 25,000 times now from restaurants to furniture makers. I never ever expected the level of response we got.