June 6, 2020

General Motors' Global Manager for Industrial Hygiene Details Efforts to Refocus Operations During COVID-19

By Kay Bechtold

Some businesses are already well into their response to COVID-19, with General Motors among them. Eltaneice Bolden, CIH, CHMM, GM’s global manager for industrial hygiene, shared her company’s efforts to refocus operations during the pandemic with AIHce EXP attendees on Wednesday morning. Bolden was one of three occupational hygienists who discussed challenges, successes, and considerations related to returning to work in the time of COVID-19.

As a global operation—the company employs approximately 173,000 workers in more than 100 facilities worldwide—GM had a “sneak peek” at what was coming when its facilities in Asia were shut down by government order as COVID-19 began to spread. Before GM’s sites in North and South America shut down as well, they instituted visitor questionnaires that have since been expanded for use by all employees. At the same time, GM fielded concerns around incoming materials from suppliers around the world. The company began sanitizing the shipments prior to arrival. Notices were placed on the containers to indicate they had been sanitized so that employees at GM’s assembly plants would be willing to open them. The company eventually began recommending that anyone who could work from home should do so. In mid-March, Bolden said, came the official shutdown of all nonessential operations.

In the early days of the shutdown, most of GM’s hourly and salaried employees were laid off with reduced pay, Bolden explained. Essential employees continued to work, mostly from home, while several of the company’s U.S. sites remained open to fill critical needs. GM formed a “COVID Team,” comprising representatives from several departments, including medical, safety, facilities, manufacturing and engineering, and operations. Bolden described the team as critical to GM’s COVID-19 response.

“We refocused our very large company very quickly,” she said.

Medical staff developed guiding principles, interpreted guidelines, and responded to cases of illness, while safety and industrial hygiene personnel revised and updated the respiratory protection program and developed policies for face shields and for sanitizing shared fall hazard equipment. Members of GM’s facilities team established stepped-up cleaning schedules, and manufacturing engineering staff helped set up new production lines for some of GM’s COVID-19 response work, particularly for mask production. The company also needed strategies and guidance for managing HVAC, cooling fans, team rooms, and rarely used spaces. Operations personnel continue to handle return-to-work requirements, manning entry points, and social distancing. Chemical risk mitigation, purchasing, and corporate communications were also critical to GM’s response team, Bolden said.

One department—R&D operations—started helping with GM’s COVID-19 efforts before they were even asked, Bolden said. The company’s additive manufacturing team began making face shields, and two research labs converted to make hand sanitizer for use in GM facilities. “We don’t want to pull supplies out of the general supply chain,” Bolden explained.

Central to GM’s return-to-work efforts is communication. Bolden’s presentation previewed the company’s COVID communications page, which distills the work of the COVID Team into a format accessible to all employees. She told AIHce attendees that GM’s employee website was updated frequently even while the majority of employees were still at home so that return-to-work information was communicated well in advance. GM also created a comprehensive “playbook” that covers items like the company’s risk mitigation strategy, communication and awareness efforts, sanitization schedules, and approaches to social distancing and ventilation.

“When the hourly workforce comes back, they’re going to have nothing but questions and concerns, and we know that,” Bolden said. “So it’s up to us—and when I say us, I mean all of the people related to getting these strategies implemented—to know the rules and understand them, and make it our business to be really familiar with everything in these documents.”

Kay Bechtold is managing editor of The Synergist.