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Infrared cameras, personal towels: China factories go to extremes to fend off virus

At a TCL air-conditioner factory in coastal Jiujiang, workers were told to bring their own towels to dry their hands after hand-washing, according to an online notice. (Feature China/Barcroft Media/Getty Images)
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Disinfect hands and shoes at the factory gate. Bring your own towel. No sunny-side-up eggs.

Chinese companies are going to extreme lengths to stave off new outbreaks of the novel coronavirus as they reopen for business. It will be a crucial test of whether a country can keep the infection curve flat after lifting social distancing.

The stakes are high for China, economically and politically. After Beijing’s leaders declared victory over the coronavirus, a relapse would be humiliating. Worse, it could tip China — and the world — into economic recession.

Since businesses began reopening in February, China’s State Council has required companies to supply employees with face masks and check everyone’s temperature daily. Employers must submit daily reports on workers’ health statuses, a system dubbed “One Person, One File.”

In the United States, the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has also issued suggestions for businesses, which are less stringent than the Chinese rules. OSHA is suggesting work from home when possible and says companies should consider installing sneeze guards or providing employees with face masks.

China’s experience suggests that restarting the global economy will be no easy task. Chinese industry is only creaking in motion with heavy overhead costs for infection prevention. Some municipalities have reopened sectors only to shutter them again as infections ticked up.

Beijing’s priority is to restart manufacturing, with service sectors a secondary concern. But even for factories lucky enough to have the early green light, many had to begin production in semi-lockdown, with workers forbidden from leaving campus without permission.

“This has brought extreme inconvenience to workers who live off-campus,” said Fuyao Group, the Chinese industrial glass manufacturer made famous by the documentary “American Factory,” in a statement in late February about its lockdown in southern metropolis Guangzhou.

Fuyao said it set up 50 makeshift dorm rooms to house workers who usually lived off-campus, as it rushed to make up for lost time and fulfill orders for European clients.

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David Levine, a professor of business administration at the University of California at Berkeley, said that companies worldwide will need effective protocols to avoid new outbreaks, but also to market their products to wary consumers.

“Manufacturers are going to have to convince consumers of the safety of their products,” he said. “You need procedures in place.”

In China, some of these measures are government-mandated, such as opening office windows three times a day for 30-minute stretches. Beijing has suspended the use of fingerprint-entry keypads and forbidden workers from sitting face-to-face while eating lunch.

Companies have added their own rules. Some of the strictest are at manufacturers like iPhone assembler Foxconn Technology Group — China’s largest private employer, with more than 1 million workers — which is anxious to keep on schedule for a fall iPhone launch.

At Foxconn’s iPhone-making complex in Zhengzhou, workers have been put into teams of 20 that stick together night and day to facilitate health tracking, according to a notice by the Zhengzhou government.

“The same group of employees work, travel, live, and eat together to ensure that employees’ personal trajectories are fully traced,” the notice said.

One 36-year-old Foxconn worker who only would give his surname, Yang, said that each morning, workers are issued a face mask and have their temperature checked. At lunchtime, they eat at cafeteria tables separated by tall dividers.

“There are boards on the tables between people so we don’t see each other or talk,” he said.

Foxconn cafeteria seats have been labeled with QR codes for workers to scan so the company has a record of who sat where and when for meals, according to company notices. At their dorms, workers are told to leave their coats and bags in a designated place for disinfection.

The company has even set up an infrared video camera that tracks employees’ body temperatures as they walk by.

Foxconn said in a statement that it was implementing “all recommended health and hygiene practices . . . including the use of nucleic acid tests and chest X-rays when required.” It said it has produced 10 million surgical masks to date, with a goal of making 2 million a day for internal use.

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At a TCL air-conditioner factory in coastal Jiujiang, workers were told to bring their own towels to dry their hands after hand-washing, according to an online notice. The number of people allowed in a bathroom simultaneously is two.

TCL’s morning clock-in routine for workers: “Step one, temperature check. Step two, disinfect your entire body. Step three, take a face mask. Step four, scan the QR code to log your entry into the factory.”

Chinese telecom giant Huawei issued a 73-page manual with detailed protocols, such as a requirement for all employees to submit a daily health report before noon. All food in Huawei cafeterias must be thoroughly cooked, with sunny-side-up eggs and soft-boiled eggs off limits for now.

The guidebook also says managers should randomly select two employees morning, midday and evening for spot checking if they have washed their hands.

“We continue to require all staff to log on to the health app each day and to confirm their health as a prerequisite to entering a Huawei building,” Huawei spokesman Joe Kelly said. “Temperature checks are still in place.”

On hand-washing spot checks, Kelly said: “I cannot find any confirmation that this ever took place at Huawei.”

In the United States and China alike, standard workplace risk management is based on the “hierarchy of controls,” a system developed in the United States in the 1950s. Under this framework, companies should first look for ways to eliminate a risk altogether — by ordering all employees to stay at home during a pandemic, for example — before turning to risk mitigation methods, like safety training and protective gear in the office.

With the large number of coronavirus “silent carriers” who show no symptoms, it will be difficult for employers to eliminate transmission risk between employees once offices open up again. This makes hygiene protocols and technical safeguards — lower rungs of the “hierarchy” — more critical.

In Wuhan, the epicenter of China’s outbreak, a months-long lockdown was lifted Wednesday. But officials have warned residents that a return to regular life and work is still a long way off.

Wuhan residents wearing goggles and face masks were lined up at a hospital on Tuesday for health testing as a requirement for returning to work, according to images circulated on official newswire Xinhua.

 Wuhan virus-control official Luo Ping said on state television over the weekend that residents will need this health clearance and employment proof to leave their housing complexes, which will remain under soft lockdown.

“We are going through an orderly opening up,” she said. “With an emphasis on the ‘orderly.’ This isn’t blind optimism.”

Yuan Wang in Beijing contributed to this report.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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