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caption: Grounded Boeing 737 Max airplanes fill a parking area adjacent to Boeing Field in Seattle on Feb. 19, 2020.
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Grounded Boeing 737 Max airplanes fill a parking area adjacent to Boeing Field in Seattle on Feb. 19, 2020.
Credit: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Boeing employees are back to work. Can they stay safe?

Workers at Boeing are back on the production lines as of Monday night.

They're in the first big industry to restart during this pandemic. The union representing those workers says, already, people are sounding the alarm over safety issues.

KUOW’s Carolyn Adolph brings us up to date.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Boeing employees are saying it's good to be working. At the same time, there's anxiety over whether they can remain well while building airplanes.

One big problem right now is masks. They're mandatory — that's Boeing's rule. But a mask works when it's dry — it can't be too humid from the breath. And machinists who are building planes with them are finding that they get wet with their perspiration.

Sometimes they need a new mask and there aren't any, or they're being told it's just one a day. Several times now, according to the union, workers have shown a red badge to invoke their long standing right to stop work when they feel endangered.

Boeing has been showing it's serious about running a factory under these very challenging conditions. This week, it released the most exhausting video I've ever seen, with diligence scrubbing, and masks, and full body protective gear.

It's got a hand washing station set up. It's providing extra layers of personal protective equipment for workers in close quarters inside planes.

Boeing knows that the stakes are high, because of last time. They had some outbreaks, and they couldn't contain them, and a worker in Everett died of Covid-19. They had to stop work.

If Boeing wants to keep producing commercial airplanes, it's going have to work with its unions on keeping everyone safe. It's not just the union saying it, it's the virus showing it.

Not all 27,000 workers called back to work this week have returned — the machinists say hundreds have not returned. That's supposed to be okay. A lot of these people live with people — family members who are vulnerable, or they themselves have a medical condition that leaves them not feeling safe to return.

The decision to go back to work is a very personal one for employees. Building planes has never been a particularly safe thing to do. Now, coronavirus is extending that risk into people's families, the lives of their loved ones.

Even if they've exhausted all of their time off, they're still Boeing employees. But there's an income problem. Some may have to go to the state unemployment system for a while, but they will remain Boeing employees with the benefits. They'll keep their health care through this.

Whether it wants this role or not, Boeing is going to be leading the way for all of us, and teaching us all the issues that we may face, in our workplaces, and in our personal lives, once we get out of our homes and start working again.

Workers with their red badges are also part of that picture. They're doing their part to show what some of the difficulties can be.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.