RTD upholstery shop steps up to design, craft COVID-19 masks for colleagues

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On an average day, the skilled employees at RTD’s District Shops location are inspecting safety systems, maneuvering hulking engine blocks or shearing off durable fabrics for row after row of bus seats.

But there have been no average days since COVID-19 hit the metro area early this winter. Everyone at RTD has adapted to life-changing alterations of schedules, assignments, routines and personal health. So the employees in the upholstery shop and other maintenance workers figured they could take advantage of the disruption to their daily work to help out their colleagues.

Now, the upholstery shop is producing dozens of potentially life-saving face masks every day, to be distributed to fellow mechanics and maintenance crew members for following federal and state health recommendations about wearing masks outside the home.

"The effort began when one of the mechanics, Bela Boros, asked why we can’t make masks in-house, like everybody’s making at home," said Orlo Petersen, upholstery shop manager. "They ran it up the chain, and they said go ahead, give it a try.”

The mechanics and upholsterers found a pattern and process that seemed to work well in YouTube videos, and started making some test models from fabrics on the upholstery shop shelves. Those proved a bit unwieldy for both manufacturing and wearing, so the creative scavengers found some polyester material at a Walmart.

“There wasn’t much left” even of that, Petersen said. Currently, some more manageable cotton twill material is on order through the internet.

The need for these masks is great, as RTD is trying to preserve as many medical-standard, N95 particulate masks as it can for operators who deal with the public. Health authorities have said non-medical fabric masks can also make a difference in coronavirus transmission, so RTD has sought enough of those masks for up to 2,000 employees.

Though the upholstery shop has created an informal assembly line for the work, each piece still must be cut and put together by hand. Mechanics and upholsterers work from the patterns when time allows, with one person cutting fabric, another adding straps, and a third stitching the materials together on shop machines.

It takes about 35 cents worth of fabric and 10 to 15 minutes of labor to finish a mask, Petersen estimates. About 150 have been made so far – that are usable, he said, laughing.

“We had some we were making and they just didn’t work very well; the guys had to learn to do it themselves,” Petersen said.

Now, he added, “we have a usable product. It’s not quite as fancy as a professional seamstress might make, but it’s usable and functional.”