How one local manufacturer navigates COVID-19

Back in March, when Steve Brandt, a long time employee at Autocam Precision Components Group, a manufacturer of high precision metal components for vehicles, found out he was being laid off, he was filled with feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. After working at Autocam for 22 years as a machinist, Brandt never imagined he would be out of a job. But as COVID-19 spread viciously across the nation and state, folks like Brandt were forced to stay home.

To minimize the spread of the virus, Governor Gretchen Whitmer implemented a stay at home order in the middle of March, forcing hundreds of industries across the state to halt for the time being. The manufacturing industry was one of these.

Brandt says he wasn’t really worried whether he would have a job to come back to, but more so about when he would come back.

“Originally we were only supposed to be laid off for two weeks but every time the Governor extended the stay at home order our lay off got extended,” he explains.

Even though Brandt was forced to go on unemployment, his employer continued to provide health insurance coverage for him and his family. For Brandt, the layoff continued until the middle of May, when Governor Whitmer authorized manufacturers to reopen.

When he came back to work, Brandt found that much had changed.
Steve Brandt

“Every day when we come in we have to do a temperature check and answer a couple of health screening questions,” he explains.

Brandt is a machinist and spends his working day grinding and cutting metal. At work he is provided personal protection equipment and is required to wear a mask when in proximity with others.

“There is a distance of 30 feet from the machine I work with and the next machinist — so it's easy to keep social distance,” he adds.

Steve Heethuis, the Training Director at Autocam Precision Components Group, says the most difficult aspect when it comes to navigating the pandemic has been dealing with the fluctuating changes and requirements associated with keeping the workforce safe.

“Being a part of the manufacturing industry, we've been able to calibrate with each other and share best practices, share ideas, and ask for insights from one another,” he says.

When the industry was forced to close, Heethuis says everyone in manufacturing was forced to find ways to keep employees connected while making sure their employees had help in applying for unemployment.

Steve Heethuis“It meant understanding what they need in order to be able to navigate the unemployment system, and it was a challenge in figuring out how to maintain communication,” he says. “When Governor Whitmer shut us down we went from seeing and talking to our employees face-to-face to nothing at all.”

Because manufacturing employs more than 12.8 million people and contributes $2.37 trillion to the U.S. economy annually, the shutdown of the industry has had a significant effect on the economy both state and nationwide. Manufacturing makes up about 20% of Michigan's gross state product and 14% of its workforce, according to the National Association of Manufacturers. According to survey data collected this past spring from The National Association of Manufacturers, over 50% of manufacturers across the country anticipated a change in operations due to COVID-19.

Autocam was no exception. Heethuis says before COVID-19, people in the industry would kind of scoff a little bit at a case of the sniffles or a cold and employees were expected to power through.

“That was the mentality workers had before COVID-19, but now employees and employers understand the risks associated with people coming in with a fever, a cold, or a cough,” he explains. “Removing that expectation from our employees is a long overdue, necessary health change for our plants and industry at large.” 

Steve Heethuis
Brandt says he was used to coming into work no matter what. In the 22 years he has worked as a machinist, he has used less than a month of his sick time, but now he is required to be transparent about his health with his employer every single day.

“I was used to coming into work no matter what,” Brandt says. “I never really gave much attention to a cold or a small cough, but now we have to.”

And that change, he says, has been good.

“I feel like Autocam truly cares about our well being,” he adds.

Heathuis adds the COVID-19 safety requirements have been created for the benefit of the workforce overall.

“Each Autocam employee’s temperature is checked before every shift. Those who are not feeling well, even if it’s just a cold, are told to stay home at full pay,” he says. “Everyone who works in close proximity with someone else is required to wear a mask.”

The balancing act of keeping employees safe and staying open

According to the recent survey results of the National Association of Manufacturers, when COVID-19 first began, industry members wanted clearer guidelines and protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health.

Because manufacturing isn’t something that can be done off-sight, the industry, says Heethhuis, had to take intentional steps to develop industry-specific protocols to prevent the spread of COVID 19.

Steve HeethuisAt first, Heethuis says, they faced spread and exposure of COVID-19 within some of their plants.

“Based on guidance from the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration we understood that we were considered a low risk workforce because of the distancing we are able to maintain, but we really had to come together as an industry to understand the kind of protocols needed to keep our employees safe,” he explains. “It wasn’t just about maintaining distance between our employees.”

Developing the protocols was one thing, but making sure employees understood why it was critically important to follow was another thing. To help employees understand, Heethuis says, they began by being transparent about the protocols while asking employees to remain open to change.

“They've all been emailed our protocol and quizzed on them,” he shares. “That way they can know what to do if they are exposed to somebody with COVID-19 or are experiencing symptoms of the virus. They are given step-by-step instructions of what they need to do to protect themselves, their colleagues, and their families at home.”

For Brandt, these protocols now are second nature.

“It makes it easier that Autocam provides the personal protection equipment and that's something we don’t even have to think about,” he says.

The health screening, temperature checks. and the provision of personal protection equipment are the three guidelines outlined in Kent County Back To Work, a guide from the Kent County Health Department, MSU College of Human Medicine, Spectrum Health, the City of Grand Rapids, and Meijer to help businesses in Kent County including the manufacturing industry open back up in a safe manner.

Autocam implements all of these standards as well as sanitizing regularly where employees spend the majority of their day. According to Heethuis, Autocam had the advantage that they also had working plants in China that had fewer COVID-19 infections than in the plants here in the United States.

“So we took some of those practices and adopted them here,” he says.

Heethuis admits that the policies and procedures Autocam has put in place have slowed down production, but knowing they are doing everything they can to keep their employees safe from COVID-19 makes it worth it.

Stepping up

During COVID-19, the manufacturing industry made itself available to help the country as a whole combat the virus. Heethuis says that Autocam was no exception.

“Whether it's pivoting to make ventilators or PPE — that's what manufacturing figures out how to do,” he explains.

And that's exactly what Autocam plants in Kent County were determined to do. By collaborating with their company’s Life Science Division and other plants across Michigan and the country, they were able to develop personal protection equipment for health care providers and essential workers.

“We did some prototyping of face covering masks that included a filter,” he says. “Although our efforts didn’t yield an outward product for us, it did increase our relationship to the three divisions of Autocam that are geographically spread out.”
Steve Brandt
While the end of the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be nowhere in sight, Brandt says he’s grateful he can continue to do what he loves while knowing that his employer truly cares about his well being.

“The constant communication we have received and having the space to talk about it during our safety committee meeting makes me feel safe. The COVID-19 cases in our facilities have been very low and that helps me know that we are doing things right,” he says.

“And even when there has been a couple positives, there hasn’t been a fall-out from it.”

Back in April, an Autocam vendor tested positive for COVID-19 and an employee began exhibiting symptoms during their shift. In both situations Heethuis says they exercised their COVID-19 protocol to ensure safety.

“The vendor did not have close contact (US CDC Guidance of less than 6 ft for 15 minutes or more) due to the nature of their job,” he adds.

“When the symptomatic individual occurred, we chose to shut down for Thursday/Friday and resume operations Sunday to ensure the safety and confidence of our workforce.”

Images courtesy Bird + Bird Studio.
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