COVID-19 in Automotive industry – whether, when and how to kick off?

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Current market situation is hard for all entrepreneurs although, undoubtedly, the automotive industry is one of those branches where consequences of the lockdown are the most noticeable.

Forecasts for the upcoming months are also not too optimistic  – financial losses at the level of billions or planned job cuts for thousands of employees throughout Europe only. For Poland, these forecasts are also very pessimistic, especially considering the fact that enterprises from the automotive sector constitute one of the key driving forces of the Polish economy. Lockdown in production is moreover of substantial impact on the whole supply chain – almost all producers of components in Poland suspended their activities.

Bearing in mind the above, it is no wonder we are experiencing so many speculations on how long it will all last. The signals coming from the market are somewhat comforting – several European production plants have declared reinstating production already in April and the present period of slowdown is used by them for preparing for operations in the changed reality – such in which protective masks, gloves, goggles and antibacterial gel will have become a reality and the most widespread service provided by the suppliers will be disinfection and decontamination of work places.

Crusar, company servicing production leaders in the automotive industry in the scope of outsourcing, including cleaning and disinfecting containers and work positions for years, with the support of the Medical University and epidemiologist, Professor  Andrzej Gładysz, MD, PhD. Long-term Head of Infectious Diseases Clinic and National Consultant in the area of Infectious Diseases for the Country Sanitary Inspector, launched the programme Safe Employer already some weeks ago. Its main objective is to support production plants to reopen in a safest possible manner. Crusar has revealed an interview it carried out for the purposes of the project with Professor Andrzej Gładysz. The professor replies to questions that bother many of us. Both general issues concerning the functioning of a society in times of epidemiological threat and issues related to safety at work after reopening production can be found in the replies. The professor also carries out an epidemiological risk analysis related to reopening of production in large facilities.

CRUSAR: Mr Professor, let me start somewhat perversely, from the toughest question to which pretty much everyone would like to know the answer – when will the epidemics be over?

It depends on many factors, the most critical of which is how the society in general will approach the issue of prevention. I mean the key recommendations, that is mainly respecting the restricted social distance which is critical from the epidemiological point of view. Sadly, this ban raises the greatest objection and criticism.. And in my opinion it is in fact the most important of all! Minimizing personal contacts everywhere – at work, in parks, in shops, in every public space and among every member of the society –  also when it comes to families –  may substantially and effectively hinder the dynamics of the virus spread. A single person, i.e. an employee who out of necessity has a regular contact with several persons and who has not fulfilled the basic hygienic-sanitary recommendations such as careful, and I mean, very thorough washing of hands or even the whole body and changing clothes straight after coming back home, puts other family members at risk. And they, while contacting others, even individual persons, extend the risk chain of transmission of the infection from an asymptomatic person. At present, each of us ought to be treated as potentially “carrying” the virus. Only then can we accelerate containing of the epidemics. However, getting straight to the point, – when guided by the scale of new infections from the last days and the percentage – significant one – of infected employees of healthcare sector as well as the noticeable organizational chaos – I mean lack of guidelines and rules of preventive proceeding among individual branches of healthcare and out-hospital care, including also social care – I’m afraid that putting down the epidemics might be expected no sooner than in 3 months, that is in June. Then we still need to consider the so called “tail” of behaviours, that is for instance outbreaks occurring locally – which will last up to several weeks after the main epidemics stream, which will require continued, significant sanitary-hygienic regime.

CRUSAR: Mr Professor, in the context of what we’ve just heard – what do you think about the planned for April reopened productions in large production facilities such as VW which is planning to reopen at the level of 10-20% still in April and then to progressively increase production? Is this not too soon?

It is a tough question as from the economic-business point of view a longer standstill is not beneficial at all. On the other hand,  there is a question of the suppliers – will the entire supply chain be able to “kick start”? This is my concern related to the fact that the pandemics is of global nature. I am however not an expert in the area of automotive industry, but rather epidemiology, hence I will reply to this question in the following way. While maintaining adequate preventive procedures and caution in abiding by them – there is no room here for half measures and circumventing the provisions and guidelines when we are dealing with health and life of thousands of people – gradual reopening of production lines in the coming weeks is possible.

CRUSAR: O What measures, above all, should the employers remember about? Should these be more restrictive than the general WHO recommendations or the guidelines of the Ministry of Health?

First of all, in case of production plants one must ensure discipline and 100% obedience when it comes to the rules of safety. Mainly one must start with measuring body temperature – contactless of course – right before entering the premises. If a person is found to have an increased body temperature, that is approx. 37,3 ℃ they should not be permitted to work. Similarly, when a given employee has a cough, chest breathlessness. All employees with such symptoms ought to be directed to 14-days’ quarantine before they return to work. Apart from this, of course, personal protection equipment must be provided and work stations must be properly adjusted so that at least 1 meter distance is ensured between individual operators. It would be advisable if there was a possibility of physically isolating the employees from one another – I mean separate rooms on production halls for instance through the use of antiviral barriers. Moreover, as an obligatory rule  – without any exceptions  – masks as well as gloves must be worn. Let me reiterate – a mask must be on one’s face at all times when remaining in a production hall! If an employee has to take it off, he or she should leave their work station, take it off and throw it out and then, wear a new mask.

CRUSAR: Exactly  – so what is the truth about these masks? Should they be worn all the time? How often should we change them?

As I said  – masks must be worn for the whole time while remaining in a production hall. Similarly, as in case of any other public area. As I stated before  – everyone should now be treated as potentially infected, hence the mask is obligatory. It should be changed only when it starts to get wet which is quite important as various conditions dominate in various production halls  – in case of high humidity changing masks may be required even once an hour! We are talking about the so called surgical masks here; in case of specialist masks these rules may vary. One ought to analyse both the masks in which personnel is equipped and the conditions prevailing in the facility  – I mean the already stated humidity levels, but also ventilation and temperature levels. A mask may perform other functions  – constituting an additional barrier which causes that we do not touch our face and through this we do not transmit germs. An additional issue which ought to be considered while selecting masks is comfort of their use. I do not think that the cheap masks from China fulfil this criterion. They are obviously the cheapest but on the other hand, they are single-use masks and they are hardly comfortable. A much better solution seem to be masks made of better materials that meet the filtering criteria, above all. I am not an expert, but I take it these materials will be more expensive.

One must find a certain compromise here between efficiency, comfort and price. Perhaps one should select a mask that can be used multiple times, which will increase competitiveness towards cheap masks from China.

In medicine, unfortunately, it often happens that a true medication costs a lot and a generic one (generic drug) does not. If I were to recommend anything to the personnel, I would not in a long run go for the single-use masks but rather on the multiple use ones. A lot has recently been said about the material that must fulfil the criteria. I think it will soon turn out what material is the most appropriate here.

One important issue when it comes to masks is that they must fit well to one’s face, otherwise their effectiveness drops even by 30%.

CRUSAR: And gloves? What should we know about them in order to use them correctly? How important are they?

Gloves constitute  – just as the masks do  – a certain psychological barrier. They make us avoid many unconscious and uncontrolled movements related to touching our face. Of course, one must remember to wear gloves while working in a specific work station, in certain situations, and then take them off, throw them out and wash one’s hands and them apply a cream, which not only brings relief to our skin, irritated by antibacterial gels, but above all due to closing the skin pores it prevents penetration of germs – bacteria and viruses into our body. All the above measures are important. None of them can be omitted, whilst surely nothing can replace a thorough and frequent washing of one’s hands.

CRUSAR: Mr Professor, all these are here and now actions. But what comes next? A lot has been said lately about autumn second wave. What do you think about it?

I think, at this point in time, we have too little data to be able to predict if and when such waves will occur. This depends on the type and time of maintaining of individual resistance created by those who have recovered from coronavirus and those who underwent the infection asymptomatically. The issue related to genome volatility, that is changes in the virus structure are certainly of importance here. Today it is difficult to say anything more on this topic, however, I strongly believe that thanks to the right prevention that I stated before we will be able to curb the pandemics – this is the most critical thing at the moment.

CRUSAR: Mr Professor, thank you so much for talking to me and for giving me this precious insight. Would you like to give our readers a piece of advice to sum up our discussion? Wash your hands, as often and as thoroughly as you can! This seems like the most important tip. Abide by the rules, such as wearing masks or gloves. It cannot be underestimated, especially among people who have regular contact with others  – such as for instance persons working in large companies. We have to remember that anyone of us is potentially infected! Let’s look after ourselves and our close ones, abiding by these restrictions which are for many people a source of discomfort and freedom limitation. I will reiterate it once more  – let’s look after ourselves and our close ones doing just so – abiding by these rules! Only through this will we be able to curb the pandemics and return to “normality”! Let’s not get out of our house if it is not necessary and if we have to leave the house – especially to go to work – a mask and gloves are a must!

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