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Magna employees in China adapting to a new normal at work. Images courtesy of Magna

The auto industry is sharing detailed return-to-work guidelines on how to shield employees from the coronavirus as it prepares to reopen its own factories in the coming weeks.

Why it matters: We might not shake hands again, but sooner or later, most of us will return to our jobs, whether in a factory, office or public venue within close proximity of others. Reestablishing an environment where employees feel comfortable and can remain healthy will be a daunting challenge for every employer.

What's happening: Drawing lessons from China, where production has already resumed, automakers and their suppliers are plotting a coordinated effort to reopen North American factories, perhaps as early as May.

  • To prepare, they are creating lengthy playbooks containing step-by-step guidelines and best practices for when it's safe to return — and publishing them online for other businesses to adapt.

Case study: A 51-page “Safe Work Playbook” from Lear Corp., a maker of seats and vehicle technology, is a good example of what many companies will need to do.

  • The free document outlines how to implement everything from advanced social-distancing practices to on-site health screening and employee training.
  • It says companies should be getting organized now, while stay-at-home orders are in place, by setting up a "pandemic prevention team" and ordering supplies like soap, sanitizer, paper towels and thermometers as well as personal protective gear like masks, face shields and gloves.
  • Before anyone returns to work, they recommend companies disinfect everything from computer screens and keyboards to bathrooms and vending machines.

Details: Everything employees touch is subject to contamination, so Lear says companies will need to frequently disinfect items like tables, chairs and microwaves in break rooms and other common areas.

  • Even punching in to a time clock can be risky and Lear suggests stationing an employee nearby to disinfect the time clock between workers if needed.
  • And those waiting to enter the building should space themselves out, Lear notes. "When you talk to someone in line make sure you do not point your head directly at them."
  • Consider assigning half the workforce to eat lunch outside or in their vehicle, Lear says.

In China, a government-sponsored mobile app tracks employees' health and location, but such tactics won't fly in North America, says Jim Tobin, Asia president of Magna International, one of the world's largest auto suppliers, which has a big presence in China and has been through this drill before.

  • Instead, companies will need to rely on continued social distancing, not just on production lines but also in places like cafeterias, common areas, bathrooms, offices and entrance and exit areas, he said.

Yes, but: There are many practical challenges to social distancing at work.

  • Factory workers should be at least three feet apart, and when that's not possible, they should wear masks or face shields, or be separated by barriers, Lear's playbook says.
  • Magna erected plexiglass between some work stations to separate closely working employees in China.
  • Shift arrival times should be staggered to reduce congestion and meetings should be limited to fewer than 10 people, Lear says.
  • Workers should take staggered lunch breaks and only sit on one side of the table to avoid face-to-face contact, Lear suggests.
  • Offices should avoid face-to-face desk layouts and cubicles should have dividers between them.

The big picture: All the extra precautions no doubt add costs and cut into factory productivity, but it's better than having a lot of expensive capital equipment sitting idle, says Kristin Dziczek, vice president of Industry, Labor & Economics at the Center for Automotive Research.

  • More important, everyone agrees, is keeping employees safe.
  • “The only litmus test that matters is whether you would send your own family, your own son or daughter, into the plant and be certain they will return home safely," says UAW president Rory Gamble.

The bottom line: Gathering around the water cooler is likely off-limits for the foreseeable future. Welcome to the new normal at work.

Go deeper

Updated 40 mins ago - Health

California surpasses 50,000 COVID-19 deaths

A man prepares a funeral arrangement in in Los Angeles, California, Feb. 12. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

California's death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 50,000 on Wednesday, per Johns Hopkins data.

The big picture: It's the first state to record more than 50,000 deaths from the coronavirus.

2 hours ago - Technology

Facebook bans Myanmar military

A protester holds a placard with a three-finger salute in front of a military tank parked aside the street in front of the Central Bank building during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo by Aung Kyaw Htet/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Facebook said on Wednesday it would ban the rest of the Myanmar military from its platform.

The big picture: It comes some three weeks after the military overthrew the civilian government in a coup and detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi, causing massive protests to erupt throughout the country. Military leaders have been using internet blackouts to try to maintain power in light of the coup.

It's harder to fill the Cabinet

Data: Chamberlain, 2020, "United States of America Cabinet Appointments Dataset" Chart: Will Chase/Axios

It's harder now for presidents to win Senate confirmation for their Cabinet picks, an Axios data analysis of votes for and against nominees found.

Why it matters: It's not just Neera Tanden. The trend is a product of growing polarization, rougher political discourse and slimming Senate majorities, experts say. It means some of the nation's most vital federal agencies go without a leader and the legislative authority that comes with one.