OHB in times of Corona

An interview on the current situation at MT Aerospace AG

The first coronavirus infection at MT Aerospace AG in Augsburg was confirmed at the end of March. This was followed by further cases shortly afterwards. Early corona crisis management, the level-headed, responsible response on the part of employees and a two-week plant lockdown have had an impact: To date, there have been no further known corona cases in the company’s workforce.

We took this as an opportunity to talk to two members of the MT corona crisis team: Johannes Haberer, Operations Director and head of the crisis team, who has been with the company since January 2017, and Johannes Breitenbach, who is assistant to Mr. Steininger and responsible for corporate communication on the crisis team

When did you learn about the first confirmed Corona case at MT, Mr. Haberer?
That was on March 27, 2020, a Friday. Over the following weekend, we subsequently gained assurance that there were three more confirmed infections at our company.

What were your first thoughts, Mr. Breitenbach?
It did not come as any great surprise to us because Bavaria had been in the headlines for some time at that stage. In addition, our Corona crisis team had already been long since set up and had devised and prepared appropriate plans and procedures. This meant that we had a protocol to follow so to speak, something which is always helpful in exceptional situations. In this way, we were able to start identifying potential contacts within the company immediately after the confirmation of the Covid19 infections, even on the weekend. This prevented potentially infected colleagues from coming to work again on Monday and spreading the infection.

Who are the members of the corona crisis team?
JH: We are a core team of eight people from different parts of the company: In addition to further management representatives, the team is composed of the company physician and employees from HR, IT, the works council and HSE (safety at work). This composition is ideal and helps us to address all aspects. We meet regularly to discuss the current situation and the infection situation - including outside regular working hours if necessary.  As I see it, we are working together very well and effectively. In the meantime, we have established processes and are able to respond on a coordinated basis. We have even created our own tracking tool to cover all contingencies...

A tracking tool? Like an app?
JH: No, our tracking tool is a list that we maintain, allowing us to see at a single glance who we need to monitor in particular, who we are still missing information on and what possible infection chains may have arisen. Our first four cases at the end of March involved infections among coworkers and it was very valuable to be able to quickly see how to prevent further infections as far as possible. Obviously, the fact that all those affected reacted in an exemplary manner and informed us at an early stage was also very important.

JB: Needless to say, this depends on open and trusting communication between the infected employees or their contact persons and their line managers as well as us on the crisis team. It goes without saying that we will continue to protect the anonymity of all employees who may or may not be infected as we move forward.

Is there any coordination with the rest of the OHB Group?
JH: Of course, we are also working very closely with ATP in Peißenberg and with our colleagues at the Kourou launch pad in French Guyana on matters relating to the coronavirus. Everything was on complete lockdown in Kourou for a long time and there were great problems getting protective masks. Fortunately, we placed orders at an early stage and were thus able to help our colleagues at both locations by providing them with masks and in some cases also with disinfectants.

JB: I am also in regular contact with the OHB crisis team, which is being coordinated from Bremen. This is very helpful because we can benefit from each other’s individual ideas, processes and measures as well as the experience gained at the various locations. In the meantime, we are using similar processes and adopting each other’s best practices, exchanging ideas on the procurement of protective equipment and sharing documents. In this way, we can pool our strengths and make use of existing resources rather than starting from scratch on each individual matter.

What “tangible” protective measures have you implemented at the plant?
JH: We have primarily been working on reducing the number of people present in the offices and in our production halls at any given time together with stepped-up arrangements allowing employees to work from home. In the initial phase, we intensified hygiene measures massively. This included distributing disinfectants to all employees and placing disinfectant dispensers at critical points such as in the canteen. Speaking of disinfectants, we organized secure supplies of these at an early stage to avoid being dependent on individual producers by producing the disinfectant ourselves on the basis of the WHO instructions. Thank you to all the colleagues entrusted with this task.

Via information campaigns, Mr. Breitenbach has informed employees of our protective measures, such as the need to observe minimum distances, hygiene requirements and the large-scale adoption of Skype conferences rather than physical meetings.

We also temporarily closed the cafeteria, reopening it only after the implementation of extensive protective measures, re-arranged the break rooms, procured and distributed face masks, established a system for our company vehicles and stipulated that only one person at a time may occupy narrow elevators, copying rooms and kitchenettes.

May I just put in a brief appeal here? Dear colleagues, please remain careful and alert even though the restrictions are now being eased in Bavaria and the rest of Germany. In addition to washing or disinfecting your hands frequently, it is now particularly important to observe the minimum distance rules and to wear face masks when working on assemblies in a confined space!

Obviously, we will continue to monitor the situation closely and, if necessary, respond and notify you accordingly. 

JB: My thanks go out to all employees who are behaving in an exemplary manner and are thus sending out the right signal, while also helping very specifically to reduce the risk of a new wave of infection afflicting our employees.

How are you helping the employees to stay abreast of the latest developments, Mr. Breitenbach?
JB: From the outset, we opted for open and, above all, swift communications. We use our intranet to inform everyone quickly and easily about such things as the latest developments or decisions made by the Board and crisis team; in particularly important cases, we communicate with staff via the e-mail. As well as this, we have set up our own corona overview page, which can also be accessed from private devices. It provides comprehensive information, links and news relating to the current situation and decisions together with answers to the most frequently asked questions. We also provide managers with information and specific guidelines and keep them updated in Skype-based conferences so that they know how to respond in this particular situation.

There was doubtless also considerable uncertainty at MT at first – has a certain degree of routine since been established in the response to the coronavirus?
JB: The managers remain available to their staff as the first point of contact for discussions regarding the coronavirus. For me, one essential element of this has been and continues to be the more flexible rules for teleworking that have created the opportunity for many employees to work from home – and not just for those who are themselves at risk or have no alternative for family-related reasons (child care or nursing). In this way, we have been able to substantially reduce the number of people present at our site at any given time. We have ordered reusable masks, distributing them free of charge to all employees. Here at the site, the rules for wearing masks are not yet so strict, but we are constantly observing the situation and, depending on the situation, will make a decision on whether we can relax the rules or need to tighten them should, for example, the number of infected employees in the company increase again.  However, it is crucial for everyone to realize that everything stands and falls with the need to observe minimum distances. If this is not possible, e.g. for employees working on hardware in highly confined spaces, a mask must always be worn.

What is your view as Operations Director on the now frequently used option of working from home?
JH: First of all, I would like to thank our IT staff most sincerely for creating the technical basis that has made it possible for so many employees to work from home efficiently and at short notice. They have procured laptops, arranged access, organized the necessary bandwidth and installed additional telephone lines. And they are doing a great job supporting the users! It is important to realize that for many employees working from home was something completely new.

Fortunately, this has proven to be a viable method of working and every bit as good as working in the office.  Our employees have been very flexible and efficient and this is also confirmed by the managers. So we have every right to be satisfied with the option of working from home in connection with more flexible opening hours and intelligent shift allocation as this also helps to reduce the number of people present in the offices and halls at any given time. Skype for Business has now become established as our main digital communications medium. Obviously, working from home is not an option for everyone in a production company. So, I’d like to thank everyone for the great work they are doing either at home or here.

Announcing the decision to close the company during the Bavarian Easter holidays can surely not have been easy for you...
JB: A plant lockdown is, of course, a measure that impresses on everyone just how critical the situation is – with respect to our health and our business as well as the economy in general and society as a whole. However, to make things quite clear: The plant lockdown was important as a means of preparing for short-time working and as an effective way of disrupting infection chains. Even so, some employees continued to work on site during the lockdown either because they were needed for critical matters or held positions performing important functions. So, I would like to thank those who continued to work – as well as those who have stayed home. 

To what extent does MT depend on supply chains as a supplier to the Ariane program and the aviation industry?
JH: We contacted our suppliers, primarily to find out what deliveries we could expect at what time, but also to gain a sense of how robust their contingency plans are. In any case, we try to minimize the effects of delivery shortfalls as far as possible by means of intelligent rescheduling.

How is MT preparing for the possibility of delays in launches or postponements in the orders awarded by aircraft manufacturers as a result of the coronavirus? Is short-time working being considered?
JH: Like many other companies in the aviation and aerospace industry, we have prepared for the possibility of needing to introduce short-time working. We have done this very carefully and with all due caution to avoid any layoffs. The situation in the aviation sector is dramatic given that our main customer Airbus is currently cutting back its programs due to the global pandemic. Our production activities are directly affected by this. Since the beginning of May we have been working intensely on implementing all necessary measures to respond to this and are currently registering for short-time working.

This means that short-time working may also be necessary in other areas that are impacted by corona-related delays. We have prepared various plans with different escalation levels so that we are able to pull the right one out of the drawer should this become necessary. Our foremost objective is to protect the workforce during the crisis while maintaining the company’s ability to act.

What conclusion can you draw at this stage?
JB: At the moment, we all jointly have the situation well under control here and have not had any new infections. However, in the event of any renewed sharp increase in the infection rate at our company, this will inevitably impact our operations and force us to step up our protective measures. In such a case, our processes will have to prove themselves anew and all employees will have to act in a level-headed and responsible fashion.

JH: We must get used to the idea that the coronavirus and all its aspects and consequences will remain with us for quite some time to come. This doesn’t just apply to our company and our daily routines. In addition, it is a matter that really affects everyone and must be taken seriously. It’s a test for us at our company and for society as a whole.

JB: I completely agree. May I also just add that we have prepared as best we could and in good faith. If everyone does their part by responding sensibly, acting as a role model for others and following the instructions, there is a good chance that our workforce will remain protected and the company’s operations can continue. After all, when push comes to shove, it is a question of ensuring that everyone stays healthy and our company gets through the crisis.

What nice closing words, Mr. Breitenbach! So, the last question goes to Mr Haberer: Do you have a motto in life and does it help you in the corona crisis?
Stay healthy - and enjoy your work even in crisis situations.