Wednesday, September 23, 2020
Sept. 23, 2020

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Workers on front lines in Washington making ventilators endure risks to ‘help others save lives’

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Leticia Frutos never imagined she’d spend weeks avoiding her month-old granddaughter because of her manufacturing job in Bothell .

The material assistant for Ventec Life Systems is one of more than 1,000 workers nationwide on the front lines of Ventec’s Project V venture with General Motors to make thousands of ventilators for the nation’s coronavirus fight.

As she works a ramped-up Monday-through-Saturday schedule, Frutos, 47, is leery of becoming infected with the virus and exposing others to it — especially her granddaughter, Lluvia, in Everett. She saw her twice within a week of her birth but not since. Instead, she often speaks by phone to her daughter, Cristina, and eldest granddaughter, Neveah, 7.

“I really worry, even though I consider myself healthy and very active, that I could be a transmitter,” Frutos said. “It’s been emotionally hurtful.”

Despite worries about their health and those around them, many Ventec employees see themselves as crucial to getting the ventilators built quickly.

“It’s a lot of pressure, I’m not going to lie,” Frutos said of the responsibility she feels. “It’s a great sense of accomplishment every time we ship units and know it’s going to save some lives. The fact that we know these ventilators have been waited for and we’re delivering some help — it’s very gratifying.”

Ventec, GM and the companies supplying parts for them say worker safety is a prime concern. It’s also a challenge, given the ramp-up in production means more workers on the production line, often for more hours per week, and at a hurried pace that could lead to mistakes safeguarding against COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

Other companies with operations involving workers in confined spaces face similar challenges. For example, warehouse workers at Amazon have staged protests in the United States, France and Italy over what they say is management not taking their COVID-19 safety concerns seriously enough and failing to implement enough social distancing and cleaning measures.

Frutos said she feels Ventec is doing all it can to keep workers safe. The company has separated workspaces by at least 6 feet and takes workers’ temperatures each time they enter the Bothell plant. Team meetings are held outside when possible.

“I see the extra precautions they’re taking by having a set person checking people’s temperature practically all day and the cleaning crew cleaning literally everything we touch,” Frutos said. “Also, they keep us from going out by feeding us every day. We have been really lucky.”

An avid marathon runner, she spends her lunch break going for a “quick 2- or 3-mile run” around a park adjacent to the plant.

“I have to keep my sanity somehow,” she said. “It takes me to a worry-free environment. It’s my peaceful time, my ‘me’ time. It releases my stress.”

When they aren’t slammed with work, her co-workers, she said, are like family and keep things loose with good-natured humor. They also police themselves.

“We remind each other to be cautious, wash hands frequently, and we hold ourselves accountable to always get temperature screened at the front door,” said Ventec manufacturing engineer technician Sal Keomanivong, 50. “I’m thankful my family and my team is healthy. We must continue to stay healthy if we’re going to make ventilators to help others save lives.”

Ventec CEO Chris Kiple said the company’s initial goal was to boost production “fivefold” at the Bothell plant. Now, with the GM venture, he expects that to roughly double — from 250 ventilators a month there to 2,000. He knows the risks that entails.

“We’re trying to keep our team healthy,” he said. “There are general concerns around every member of the team and with most of their families at home not able to work. We’re bringing them into an environment where there’s constantly more and more and more people coming from all over to help ramp this company forward.”

At GM’s computer components factory in Kokomo, Indiana, where the plan is to build up to 10,000 of Ventec’s VOCSN ventilators a month, workers are being drilled on new protocols.

That includes hand sanitizing, temperature taking upon arrival and wearing lower-end surgical masks – some made at GM’s Warren, Michigan, facility – throughout their shifts. There will be 30-minute intervals between shifts so workers can clean their stations before and after they leave.

Production will start mid-month with one shift, then build up to two and then three daily. Each shift worker will enter and exit through a separate door to minimize social contact, and workstations will be limited to one person and kept at least 6 feet apart.

“Our members responded to the call for help with courage and a desire to help America save its citizens’ lives,” said Greg Wohlford, shop chairperson for the United Auto Workers union local representing the GM employees involved in Project V. “We have pledged, along with GM, to do everything we can to make sure that we keep these everyday heroes safe from illness and injury.”

But doing that isn’t easy when supplies of safety gear and medical devices have grown increasingly scarce. While GM has the capacity to make its own safety masks, Cascadia Custom Molding in Woodinville – supplying 20 of the more than 700 VOCSN components, including the crucial chassis – has just six masks brought in from its Idaho plant.

The reusable blue surgical masks have been given mainly to shipping and receiving employees. Cascadia also borrowed thermometers from employees to screen them before entering the building.

“Our HR manager here, we’re using her forehead thermometer because we can’t get the supplies,” said Janeanne Upp, CEO and co-owner of the company. “We knew we had to start taking temperatures and … people have been very generous sharing their supply.”

Upp said Cascadia has acquired plenty of “medical grade disinfectant” to thoroughly clean the production area every Saturday. Smaller bottles of it are around for employees to do their own spot-cleaning, along with ample canisters of disinfectant wipes to use on workstations.

Welders working on VOCSN parts have been spaced further apart while tables and chairs in the break room have been removed to encourage social distancing. Employees have been asked to limit numbers in that room and eat in their cars if necessary.

Brad Arnold, 41, a Cascadia production manager who works on the manufacturing floor, has a 2-month-old son at home with his wife in Lake Stevens.

“When we brought him home, it was right as the quarantining was starting,” Arnold said. “So, there’s definitely a little bit of concern. But my wife knows, I’ve told her what I’m doing and what the company’s doing. And she knows that part of what we’re doing is to help.

“So, on that hand she’s happy that I’m able to do this,” he said. “But of course, there’s always going to be the nerves there.”

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