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GM arlington for reopen story.jpg General Motors
The line at GM’s assembly plant in Arlington, TX, before it and other automotive facilities closed because of the coronavirus.

Reopening Auto Industry Will Require Tracking, Testing, More

Every employee will need to yield medical data as a condition of returning to work, says SAP North America's Bill Newman.

Restarting automotive factories and offices while there’s still a risk of coronavirus contagion requires a whole new level of employees sharing personal medical information with employers, and employers tracking who interacts with who, and even where, in the workplace, experts said.

“Perhaps for the first time, every employee is going to have to yield medical data as a condition of returning to employment,” says Bill Newman, senior industry value adviser-automotive & manufacturing at SAP North America.

“It’s the next normal – it’s where we’re at,” he says during a Center for Automotive Research webinar on the use of data to help businesses reopen in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Step One: Testing

Relevant data include test results for coronavirus, contact tracing, as well as studies to identify high-traffic areas. That's important because those areas may need extra disinfecting. To avoid overcrowding, companies might also consider staggering check-in and check-out times, or warning employees to avoid congregating in those high-traffic areas, experts say during the CAR webinar.

But even before employees get tested for coronavirus, Newman says companies need to verify whether employees are ready, willing and able to come back to work.

Companies also need to identify returning employees who are at high risk, so they can be prioritized for testing. For instance, some employees could already be sick, or caring for someone else who’s sick.

Other employees might fear going back to a group setting. Some might opt to retire instead of returning, Newman says. “Workforce readiness is very uncertain. We believe there’s a really big risk in taking workforce readiness for granted.”

Step Two, Testing

Once actual testing begins, make it simple for employees to make an appointment, says David Mingle, global automotive industry leader for Qualtrics.

Qualtrics, based in Salt Lake City, is an SAP company that has helped set up COVID-19 assessment, testing and case-management programs for Iowa, Nebraska and a consortium of high-tech companies based in Utah.

It’s up to employers to demonstrate that participating in assessment and testing produces real-world results that make them safer, Mingle says.

“People are willing to provide their feedback, in some cases very personal information,” he says. “As long as they see an action that benefits them ... they will continue to engage.”

Step Three: Tracing

Once employees are back to work, the employer has to keep track of employee interactions.

That way, if an employee tests positive for the coronavirus, only the employees who came in contact with that person need to be quarantined, instead of closing the whole operation, says Troy Lau, group leader-machine intelligence for Draper, an R&D engineering company based in Cambridge, MA.

“We’re all going to have to do contact tracing,” Lau says. And it’s going to have to be data-driven, by devices like smartphones, RFID chips, employee identity cards, cameras, and the like.

“People don’t know, or don’t remember who they interacted with. Did I interact with Joe last Tuesday? Because we just had Joe just go positive. All these questions are going to have to be answered.”

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