MOLINE, Illinois — Jerry Miller Jr. sees his current work assembling protective face shields for medical professionals as potentially the difference between life and death.
Miller, a UAW production worker for John Deere, and a team of 30 colleagues have mobilized quickly to produce thousands of face shields a day for those working on the front lines battling the coronavirus (COVID-19).
“To me, it’s my patriotic duty to help out our country, especially those on the front lines,” said Miller, a 22-year veteran of John Deere. “I don’t want someone to lose a spouse, a partner, a child or a parent…I’ll do anything in my power to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Production employees at the Moline Seeding Group factory initially aimed to produce 25,000 face shields to meet the immediate needs of health care workers in several of Deere’s U.S. manufacturing communities. That initial goal has grown significantly. Materials and supplies are on order to produce an additional 200,000 face shields.
Inside the factory, which produces planting equipment, an area dedicated to face shield assembly is buzzing with activity. A series of tables is set up across the factory floor, each a workstation for an individual employee to assemble face shields. The wide distance between the workstations reflects Deere’s robust safety measures to help protect employees across the company from the spread of COVID-19.
Greg Kaiser, a UAW assembler who typically works in the factory’s row unit assembly department but now assembles face shields, said an acquaintance is now hospitalized with COVID-19, which has made Kaiser’s work all the more meaningful. “It makes you feel like we’re banding together to help the frontline people to stay protected and fight this for our communities.”
The power of collaboration
Moline Seeding Group factory manager Brad Russmann credits a massive collaborative effort — from procuring supplies to setting up a production process — with getting the face shield project quickly off the ground.
“We’ve had people both inside the factory as well as outside the factory,” he said. “We were able to engage both our UAW and IAM workforce to come up with creative, innovative solutions to how we were going to put these together.
Russmann said the team received ideas and input from multiple experts across the company, but credits Seeding Moline’s team for getting the project up and running. “The factory floor collaboration between production and salaried employees has helped us ensure the best possible product,” Russmann added.
Deere is collaborating with the UAW, International Association of Machinists, Iowa Department of Homeland Security, and the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association on the face shield project, joining a number of other organizations to produce protective equipment in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Heather Keag, president UAW Local 434, said the UAW team was eager to help respond to the crisis. She approached Russmann to see if there was anything the production team could do to help. “The project came together,” Keag said. “We’re rolling right along and are very proud of everything being done.”
Managers at 17 U.S. Deere factories in eight states will oversee face shield distribution. The initial run will help meet the immediate needs of health-care workers in those communities.
Dubuque, Iowa, is one community that will receive the face shields. When Mark Dickson, factory manager at John Deere Dubuque Works, told a local hospital director Deere would donate 1,000 protective face shields, something became very clear: The desperate need to protect medical professional on the front lines has hit the heartland.
Dickson said the sound of the hospital director’s voice spoke volumes. “When I told him about the face shields, his voice cracked with gratitude. He told us he was overwhelmed by the generosity.”
“There’s a huge need,” said Afzal Erik Abdullah, a vascular surgeon who helped Deere test prototypes of the face shield. “We’re all at risk, and some specialties are more at risk. So all of us are looking for extra PPE [Personal Protective Equipment]. If a [PPE item] runs out or breaks down, we have it readily available.”
The blueprint for the Deere-produced face shield came from an open source design created by the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Abdullah asked a colleague, an anesthesiologist, to test Deere’s protype.
“I gave her the prototype — her face shield was falling apart,” Abdullah said. “As she used the prototype, she found it more comfortable and durable. She was very satisfied with it.”
“We knew that we needed to do more to help the true heroes in the fight against this virus: the frontline health-care workers,” said David Ottavianelli, director of strategic projects—Labor Relations. “Our employees wanted to do more for the local community, and we are so proud of their actions. They are the real stars.”
For UAW veteran Miller, who normally runs a hydraulic machine to build planters, assembling face shields takes on added significance. “This is kind of like our Rosie the Riveter moment,” Miller noted. “To be able to say I helped contribute to helping protect people from getting sick, that’s personal pride for me.”