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NEWS | May 19, 2020

See-through masks benefit depot personnel

By Ms. Jacqueline Boucher

TOBYHANNA ARMY DEPOT, Pennsylvania -- So much of the message gets lost in translation for a number of depot employees trying to communicate with coworkers wearing face masks.

Increased demand for specific products during the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted Team Tobyhanna to design and fabricate hundreds of see-through face masks so deaf and hard of hearing personnel can join the conversation.

Facial expressions help individuals in this workforce demographic understand the subtle intonations in conversation that tell them how someone is feeling and the emotions they’re trying to communicate. Nonverbal communication, or body language, includes facial expressions, body movement and gestures, eye contact, posture, tone of voice, and even muscle tension and breathing.

Fabric workers in the Systems Integration and Support Directorate’s Equipage Branch joined forces with members of the Equal Employment Opportunity Office (EEO) and deaf and hard of hearing community to open the lines of communication.

“I need to see as much of the face as possible, facial expression plays a role in being able to understand people when they talk to me,” said Ryan Bash, machinist in the Fabrication and Assembly Division. “If half your face is covered, I won’t know if you’re joking with me or trying to have a serious conversation.”  Bash uses lip reading and sign language to communicate.

Staff Interpreter Stacy Hoila said the new mask will help her do her job more efficiently and effectively. She explained the motivation behind the mask project was a phone call from a concerned employee. Obtaining clear masks through conventional means wasn’t possible; however, a pattern was provided to in-house experts in hopes they could lend a hand.

Depot employees jumped at the chance to help, and it wasn’t long before coworkers were testing prototype masks. There are more than 100 employees who interact daily with the nearly two dozen deaf and hard-of-hearing people who work at Tobyhanna Army Depot.

“Putting the first prototype together was a challenge,” said Eunice Hartranft, fabric worker. “Once we had the process in place, it took about an hour to assemble a mask using cotton fabric and clear vinyl.”

Feedback was critical to the successful design of the mask. Small adjustments to prevent fogging, improve the fit of the nose piece and determine how the mask would be secured to the wearer’s head were made throughout the process.

“We made several masks for testing,” said Joe Limani, acting Equipage Branch chief. “We used everyone’s comments to tweak the design.”

Communication with personnel on the floor is critical to the success of Tobyhanna’s mission.  Keith Knecht talks to his team about different requirements throughout the day. The Machining Branch chief said he’s thankful to everyone who played a part in the project.

“This is great,” he said. “The masks will help improve the quality of life for depot personnel.”

Bash and Gregory Sabol, also a machinist, work alongside coworkers in the Machining Branch to provide warfighters with quality parts. Shop personnel make everything from refabricated parts to new designs to support multiple depot organizations.

“The new masks will help me communicate with the people on the shop floor and help me do my job,” Sabol said.

Each person involved in the project never imagined they would be producing face masks at the organic industrial base installation as a way to help coworkers survive a global pandemic.

This was definitely a team effort, according to John Sutkowsky, EEO manager, and Shannon Reyes, EEO specialist. They both remarked that the quick response from Tobyhanna’s on-site team was impressive and the new masks would help so many people.

“This project highlights Tobyhanna’s capability,” said Kevin Werner, fabric worker leader. “It is so satisfying to be able to come up with something that benefits the workforce.”