- Kia Motors began manufacturing face shields for frontline workers in March.
- The initiative was in response to a nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment.
When parts of the U.S. began shutting down this spring to help stem the coronavirus outbreak, an inspiring wave of altruism swelled across the country. Distilleries converted their operations to make hand sanitizer, neighbors shopped for groceries for those too sick or vulnerable to do so themselves and many sewed homemade masks for others, some specifically designed for those in the deaf community.
In hard-hit Georgia, the urgent call to action was met by workers at a Kia Motors manufacturing plant.
In response to the nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) — which was particularly acute at the onset of the pandemic — Kia Motors decided in March to repurpose its manufacturing plant in West Point, Ga., to produce face shields for frontline workers.
“We saw all these people having to be on the frontline, and we were thinking, ‘What can we do to help them?’” recalls Russell Wager, director of marketing operations at Kia Motors America. “We had a lot of people trying to figure out what they could do — everybody wanted to help some way, somehow. That’s when we came up with this idea.”
Despite the fact that the plant was officially in a five-week shutdown, hundreds of workers volunteered to help by the time operations began in April. In the beginning, Kia’s goal was to manufacture and donate 300,000 face shields to nearby hospitals in Georgia and Alabama, and to other areas hit especially hard by coronavirus outbreaks — at the time, those included Northeast states, Chicago and Southern California.
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The Georgia plant implemented a series of strict safety measures to protect their workers and team members, including temperature scans, face masks and gloves and staggered work stations. And then they got to work.
Now, almost four months later, nearly 400 paid volunteers at the Georgia plant have manufactured 500,000 masks and are on track to produce another 50,000. The masks are donated — sometimes loaded up into Kias and driven by employees themselves — to hospitals and state governments across the country, with at least 100 face shields going to each of the 750 Kia dealers nationwide to distribute to their communities.
“Our people are the heart and soul of our company and they take a lot of pride in what we’re doing,” says Michael Ware, the assistant manager of production at Kia Motors Manufacturing in Georgia. “As it’s grown, it’s been a really good thing for our community. I get a lot of people that stop me on a daily basis and throughout our plant who want to know how many more we’re making, how they can get involved.”
The mask-making initiative is a major component in Kia’s “Accelerate the Good” campaign to help those affected by the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to producing face shields, Kia Motors donated $1 million to nonprofits that provide care for young people experiencing homelessness — which has been a serious problem during this pandemic. The company also donated N95 masks and gloves to medical facilities throughout Orange County, Calif., where its U.S. headquarters is located.
In addition to the employees volunteering in Georgia, more than 100 in California have stepped up to personally deliver the face shields to hospitals and medical facilities. Nicknamed the “Telluriders,” volunteers have filled up Kia Tellurides with almost 400 masks each for the ride. In May, volunteers delivered the first of 95,000 face shields the company donated to Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, Calif.
Back in Georgia, the facility is up and running again making cars. But workers are still making time on top of their regular duties to keep producing face shields. The extra effort is something Rick Douglas, the senior manager of public relations at Kia Motors in Georgia, has seen pay off in local hospitals in Georgia.
“Their staff was elated –– there were no words that could contain or describe their appreciation for it,” Douglas recalls. “They had nothing but good things to say.”
Now in phase two, the initiative — combined with other nationwide efforts to increase the national stock of protective gear — is proving effective. According to Wager, many hospitals are reporting back that they either have enough masks or are getting a donation from elsewhere. In his words, “nobody was making land grabs or being greedy.”
Kia Motors plans on capping its production of face shields at 550,000 and will reassess its efforts if hospitals are still in need of the equipment. While the face-shield initiative was born in an uncertain and scary time, Wager says it has not only helped communities across the country but those who have volunteered as well.
“In the beginning, nobody knew what was going on and they were nervous, but they wanted to help,” he says. “And after they made the donations, and they saw the smiles and appreciation of the people who were on the frontlines, they said ‘we saw exhausted people because they were working around the clock. But for a moment we gave them a little hope and inspiration.’”
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