BLUE SPRINGS • A black Corolla sits at the edge of the inspection line, where it and scores of other Corollas have been motionless for seven weeks.
But Monday, work resumes at the plant, and the cars should be rolling off the assembly line again.
Like automotive plants across the globe, Toyota Mississippi shut down operations in mid-March as the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
During that time, a skeleton crew maintained the plant in anticipation of reopening, and plant management put in a motion a plan to welcome back its 2,000 team members.
“We think we’re ready for their safe return,” said Toyota Mississippi President Sean Suggs. “And it starts from the parking lot all the way in.”
Team members will be looked after from the start to finish of their day at the 2 million square-foot-plant.
Tents have been set up in the parking lot for them to stand under, with 6-foot-markers on the ground as they line up to enter the front gate. Team members answer a CDC questionnaire regarding COVID-19, and if any of the answers indicate exposure to it, then they’re not allowed in. An app is used that 97% of the workers have at the plant, serving as the main form of communication. Those without the app will manually fill out the form.
No-touch hand sanitizers are set up at the front gate and at locations throughout the plant.
Following a trek to the main entrance, the team member’s temperature is checked, and if no fever is detected, they’ll be given a mask if they don’t have one, and safety shields if they work in position where they can’t maintain a 6-foot distance from others.
And the plant is making its own masks, with hopes of having 33,000 ready by Monday. Two teams of four workers are making about 3,500 to 4,000 masks a day.
“We’ll continue to make masks even after the start of production,” said Emily Lauder, Toyota Mississippi vice president of administration. “We anticipate team members will be wearing them every day and replacing them, so that’s why we’re making this many.”
In another effort to ensure social distancing, break rooms have tables and chairs with dividers to ensure the minimum distance.
“We have every break room throughout the plant set up like this,” said Aaron Foster, general manager of manufacturing.
Team members will rotate twice a day – normally, they rotate four times a day. But with the reduced volume, Toyota is slowly ramping up production. Built into their schedules is an additional six minutes in which team members grab wipes and cleaner and wipe down every piece of equipment. Cleaning stations are set up down each line, with detailed instructions.
“That’s a lot of non-production, but it’s important that we allow them to do that,” Foster said.
The guidelines for social distancing also apply to the cafeteria, back office and fitness center. Transparent barriers at the tables and desks and work stations have been built in house, all within a week.
When team members return to work Monday, they may not work on a vehicle, Suggs said. Most of the time will be spent discussing the new social distancing guidelines at the plant, the cleaning procedures and retraining.
“We also have to recertify the team members – they haven’t made a car in seven weeks, and so we have to re-teach them what they learned before and make sure they’re ready,” Suggs said. “Maybe the second day or third day we’ll gradually start ramping up. It’s going to be a soft landing when we start ... it’s going to look completely different from what it looked like when they left.”
Toyota’s suppliers plants will be making similar preparations, but each plant will move differently based on their demand and readiness.
Mississippi First District Congressman Trent Kelley took part in the tour of the plant Tuesday and lauded the efforts of the automaker.
“They’re ready to reopen, they’re doing it safely, and they’ve been such greet community partners from day one,” he said. “The amount of dedication they have to keep their employees safe ... it’s a great process. They’ve really thought it out and gone to a lot of hard work to make sure.”