Tesla, one facet of billionaire Elon Musk’s business empire, has been under fire in the news in recent weeks. After a news story in April revealed improperly reported work injuries at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California, the company came to the attention of politicians and news organizations alike. This was followed by reports of the Tesla Model 3 failing to achieve a full recommendation from Consumer Reports over serious flaws in the braking system. Mr. Musk himself went to war on Twitter, calling the reporting on Tesla a “calculated disinformation campaign.”
Whether or not his accusations against the press can be corroborated, the Center for Investigative Reporting caught Tesla red-handed. The company only recently added injuries from 2017 to its official injury reports, injuries which had not been properly recorded to begin with.
The law states that all work-related injuries resulting in time off from work, restrictions on the job site, or medical assistance beyond immediate first aid must be properly recorded in company records within one week of learning about the injury. But penalties for failing to properly record such injuries are lax. Employers cannot be cited for improperly reported injuries after six months, a loophole that Democratic lawmakers are seeking to close.
Tesla originally claimed that dramatic efforts on its behalf had brought it in line with the rest of the auto industry, an average of 6.2 injuries per 100 workers in 2017. This decrease in reported injuries comes after Tesla was already under fire for higher than average injury rates.
However, according to reports 13 more injuries were added to company records long after the fact. This would put their 2017 average injury rate at 6.3 occurrences per 100 workers in 2017, just above the industry’s 2016 average of 6.2.
Tesla’s Fremont factory allegedly limits the use of industry standard warning signs and alarms due to Musk’s personal preferences.
One former employee, safety lead Justine White, claimed that after noting a distinct lack of yellow warning tape and signs, her supervisor brushed aside her concerns, in a single sentence:
“Elon does not like the color yellow.”
Other former Tesla employees claimed that Mr. Musk also doesn’t care much for the warning alarms from forklifts in reverse. Excess warning signage was also viewed with distaste, as was warning tape on the factory floor used to mark pedestrian routes. As a result, according to Ms. White, the factory was rife with near-accidents, as machinery and industrial equipment drivers barely avoided clipping workers. According to former employees, safety was a secondary concern to matching production demands and Mr. Musk’s personal aesthetics, to the degree where safety shoes in the plant were discouraged.
Ms. White resigned from Tesla in 2017, disillusioned after multiple attempts to warn her managers about unsafe conditions went unaddressed.
“Everything took a back seat to production,” said White, during her interview with Reveal. “It’s just a matter of time before somebody gets killed.”
The company has fired back with counter-claims that its safety records disprove her concerns.
Contrary to Tesla’s claims, many employee injuries can be attributed to poor safety practices.
Alaa Alkhafagi suffered serious injuries while working in the factory’s paint department. Asked to go underneath a painting booth, Alkhafagi slipped in wet paint pooled on the floor. Neither he or his fellow workers present at the time were given training on proper maintenance procedures. His injury was one of the 13 Tesla failed to properly record at the time.
Another employee, Andrew Driskell, was injured in December 2017 while on his first day mounting interior door panels on a Model S sedan. His training failed to show him the safe way to position his body for the task. One of his feet was caught beneath the car as it moved on the assembly line, and his knee was twisted to the point of dislocation. His injury was one of the 13 Tesla did not update in its internal records until 2018.
In addition, hazardous chemicals have been used in the plant without employees being properly trained for these dangers. Tarik Logan inhaled fumes from a toxic glue used in the Fremont building during production in April 2017. The pain from debilitating headaches he suffered from afterward left him unable to work, and like Driskell and Alkhafagi, his injury would not appear in company records until after Reveal’s report this year.
Overworked and poorly trained employees deal with a near-constant state of high speed production demands, increasing health risks throughout the facility.
Elon Musk claimed that Tesla would be able to produce 20,000 Model 3 sedans per month by the end of 2017. While the factory never met even half of that estimate, the Fremont plant is regularly in a state of overtime production. Workers are often pressed into 12-hour work days, with new hires occasionally being sent out to the production floor in the middle of their introductory training.
The pressure to produce more cars to meet demand has led to a broad range of health hazards throughout the facility. The mechanical hoists used to move car parts were allegedly never designed for the task, nor were they properly inspected. According to former employees, the hoists have failed multiple times while moving heavy parts, causing serious injuries.
Cancer-causing silica was spread throughout the factory during an expansion project in 2017, with Tesla failing to properly contain the dust.
A contractor is suing Tesla for unsafe practices that led to severe injuries.
In June 2017, Son Nguyen was working in the Fremont factory under Mark III Construction, a Tesla contractor. During installation of an equipment charging station, an arc flash blew him nearly 20 feet away from his work site. He awakened on fire, and began screaming for help. Mr. Nguyen survived his experience, and is now suing Tesla for its part in his accident.
According to Nguyen’s attorneys, a request to power down the equipment he was working on was issued to Tesla employees. However, they refused to do so, and according to Nguyen’s attorneys their decision was based on not wanting to slow down production.
Further complicating the issue is that OSHA did not investigate Tesla for its involvement in the accident, but rather Mark III. Tesla gave Mark III the boot from the Fremont facility, and denies any wrongdoing in the incident.
Tesla will be under intense scrutiny going forward, but will likely evade penalties for failing to properly report injuries.
The electrical car manufacturer has been staving off reports of unsafe conditions at Fremont for years, with injury rates consistently exceeding the industry average. However, due to existing loopholes and interpretations of the law, it is likely that Tesla will not be cited for those violations, as many of the 13 unreported injuries are well over 6 months old.
But there is some truth to Elon Musk’s claims that the media is paying more attention to his company than usual. And with reports of other unsafe practices likely to come out into the open, this attention will not fade any time soon.
This blog is not meant to dispense legal advice and is not a comprehensive review of the facts, the law, this topic or case.