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Published: Wednesday, 4/29/2009

Toledo area firms operating in Mexico take steps to fight flu

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

Officials of La-Z-Boy Inc. in Monroe have dispatched an unusual shipment to the company's plant in northern Mexico: surgical masks.

About 1,000 masks are expected to arrive Wednesday and another 1,000 in the next day or two as the furniture manufacturer takes precautions against the swine flu outbreak that is claiming lives and frazzling nerves in Mexico.

Across northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, officials of companies with operations in the nation where the bug was first identified are closely monitoring events and taking steps to curb the spread of the flu that has begun showing up worldwide.

"Like everybody else, we're paying attention to it," said Kirk Vashaw, president of Bryan's Spangler Candy Co., which produces candy canes year-round at a plant near the U.S. border in Juarez.

Toledo's Owens Corning employs 450 at a plant in Mexico City that makes residential insulation and fiber glass. There have been no cases of the flu, spokes-man Scott Deitz said.

But, following recommendations of officials in Mexico City, shower areas have been temporarily closed, the plant cafeteria serves only box lunches, and telephone conferences have supplanted face-to-face meetings when possible, Mr. Deitz added.

At a video conference yesterday, OC's Mexico employees could be observed wearing the surgical masks that have become the most visible symbol of the flu in the North American nation.

Most of the factories with ties to the Toledo region are in the northern part of the country, far from the epicenter of the outbreak in Mexico City. Despite reports of empty streets and closed schools, workplace absenteeism has not increased, executives report.

Still, the impact is being felt.

At a huge tableware plant operated by Toledo's Libbey Inc. in Monterrey in northeast Mexico, officials have handed out surgical masks and are enforcing stricter hygiene practices, company executives said.

Some employees have asked to temporarily adjust work schedules to care for children released from schools that have been closed by the outbreak until May 6. More than 3,000 people are employed at the Libbey plant.

There were two suspected cases of the flu at Libbey offices in Mexico City, but tests determined that the employees did not have the bug, company officials said.

If the outbreak widens, there are plans for office employees to work from home and to maintain a skeleton crew at the factory until the problem eases. Even so, the plant anticipates no problems filling customer orders.

Toledo's Dana Holding Corp., an auto parts producer, has 2,000 employees at 10 plants in Mexico.

Operations include a factory on the outskirts of Mexico City in Tlalnepantla. Surgical masks have been issued, but there have been no cases of the flu. Officials at Dana headquarters on Dorr Street on Monday issued a temporary travel advisory limiting trips to Mexico to essential business.

Owens Corning has issued a similar advisory.

La-Z-Boy employs about 400 people at its plant in the state of Coahuila. Spokesman Kathy Liebmann said the firm has encouraged employees there, as well as at U.S. operations, to wash hands regularly, avoid close contact when possible, stay home when sick, and to follow other recommendations of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Contact Gary T. Pakulski at:

gpakulski@theblade.com

or 419-724-6087.



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