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.

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