Boeing to Limit N95 Masks For Returning Workers, Stoking Concern

By Julie Johnsson | April 17, 2020

Boeing Co. faces a quandary as it reopens its Seattle-area factories: how to keep its employees safe while minimizing the use of protective gear that’s desperately needed for medical workers.

The planemaker plans to limit scarce N95 masks for plant workers, relying mainly on cloth face coverings. In an April 9 letter to Washington state officials, Boeing cited new U.S. government guidelines directing companies to reserve the respirators for hospital staff on the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic.

While fabric face coverings are federally approved, union officials worry they won’t adequately protect mechanics toiling shoulder-to-shoulder in tight spaces such as fuel tanks inside wings. And with testing and safety equipment still hard to get, it’s a preview of the tug-of-war between safety and societal interests that other companies will face when they begin summoning house-bound employees back to work.

“We still have general concerns about how the company is able to keep the workplace safe when we go back,” said Jon Holden, president of IAM District 751, which represents about 32,000 Boeing machinists in the Puget Sound region. “That’s the million-dollar question: How do you keep someone safe in an environment like this? Will cloth masks be good enough to stop the spread of the virus?”

Essential Employer

As one of the largest U.S. exporters and the second-largest defense contractor, Boeing is considered an essential employer. The company is allowed to resume manufacturing provided it complies with new state requirements for social distancing, sanitation and protective gear for employees working in close proximity.

On Thursday the company said it will broadly restart operations next week, recalling another 27,000 employees to factories that were shuttered on March 25. Most white-collar workers will continue to telecommute, lowering the concentration of people in company facilities, Boeing said.

The plan to reopen production sparked a rally in the shares, which surged 13% to $151.37 at 11:10 a.m. in New York. Boeing fell 59% this year through Thursday, the biggest drop on the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Returning employees will find an array of new protective measures in place, from more portable wash stations to temperature screening for employees worried they are running a fever. Washington state’s Department of Labor and Industries signed off on Boeing’s safety strategy on April 13, a day before the first mechanics reported back to its largest manufacturing hub.

“We do not take the resumption of operations lightly, and understand the concerns that our employees and others who must access our sites will have,” Boeing said by email. “We are taking care to ensure that the work environment within our facilities is as safe as possible.”

Protective gear has emerged as a flash point at other companies such as Inc. Boeing employees will be encouraged to wear cloth masks and the company will provide them, if need be, on sites where face coverings are required. The planemaker said it will also make personal protective equipment available to those “working in areas where physical distancing cannot be maintained for an extended period.”

The distribution of N95 respirators, named for the percentage of airborne particles the masks block, will be more limited. The gear will go to first responders, flight training centers, areas where the masks are typically required by safety and health regulators and to staff handling deep cleaning of a space potentially contaminated by coronavirus, Boeing said.

The aerospace titan’s actions will be closely monitored throughout its network of 17,000 suppliers such as General Electric Co., Triumph Group Inc. and Spirit AeroSystems Holdings Inc., as well as in the broader U.S. industrial base. Those companies have been in limbo, trimming jobs and putting workers on leave, while awaiting word on when parts would again begin flowing to Boeing.

“Boeing not reopening their plants was like a shock wave through the system,” said Eric Bernardini, global co-leader of the aerospace, defense and aviation practice for Alix Partners.

Seattle-Area Pain

The pain has been particularly acute in Washington, where idled Boeing machinists were eligible for unemployment benefits. Layoff rumors have swirled as the U.S planemakers mulls deeper cuts to its 787 Dreamliner program and European rival Airbus SE pares jetliner output by about a third.

Boeing needs to shrink its operations as the jetliner market contracts and expects thousands of workers to accept buyouts in the U.S. Invitations will be sent to eligible employees in late April, according to a planning document viewed by Bloomberg News. Those opting to leave will be off the payroll by the end of June.

Before Boeing shut down its hulking campus in Everett, Washington, last month, the atmosphere was tense with some people not showing up for shifts and ambulances whisking stricken workers away, said a mechanic, who asked not to be identified as he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. Cleaners stepped up efforts to wipe off handrails and doorknobs within the complex, the size of a small city.

There has since been a substantial decline in infection rates for Seattle, an early hot spot. Boeing appears to be flattening its own curve: The company is tracking 65 new cases while 120 employees have recovered from Covid-19.

Monitoring Infections

To address safety concerns, Boeing told Washington officials it would provide temperature screening for employees who request it and will immediately send home anyone with cold or flu symptoms. The company will use contact tracing to track down and quarantine any co-workers who may have been in close contact with those infected with Covid-19.

The machinists union, meanwhile, has been briefing hundreds of its stewards about when and how to stop work if there’s a serious hazard. Some mechanics are eager to get back on the job, others still fear for their health or the risk of spreading the virus to family members, said Holden, the union leader.

“For those who must be inside,” he said, “we’ll make sure the conditions are safe.”

–With assistance from Paul Shukovsky and Peter Robison.

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