Earlier this spring, the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting published reports, based on interviews with multiple current and former Tesla employees, charging that the company had underreported its injury rates and failed to take safety steps that were considered standard in automotive manufacturing. Tesla CEO Elon Musk was incensed by the reports and attempted to smear the Center for Investigative Reporting as an “extremist organization.” But new information emerging backs up, in broad strokes, what Reveal has reported.
CNBC reports that Tesla’s paint shop has suffered four fires since 2014, including a previously-known fire in April 2018 that stopped Model 3 production for multiple shifts and a fire in January 2016 that suspended production on the Model S for at least a day. Tesla staff CNBC spoke to blame the fires on “improper cleaning, maintenance and insufficient training for new employees in the face of high pressure to meet production goals.” These reports are similar to what Reveal was told, although the Reveal report didn’t specifically focus on incidents of fire but the overall injury rates experienced by Tesla workers and whether those rates were properly logged. Tesla disputes these findings and claims to have made recent upgrades to its paint shop to improve worker safety.
Ironically, the fire appears to have caught just after Tesla’s head of vehicle engineering, Doug Field, sent an email to all Tesla staff asking them to work extra shifts and double down on vehicle production to “prove the haters wrong” and to see how many Model 3s they could build in a week. Tesla claimed the fire was small, extinguished internally, and out in a matter of seconds, but the employees who spoke to CNBC said differently. According to them, the shop was closed for at least two full shifts (one that day, one several days later). Instead of closing the entire shop to make repairs, Musk toured the facility, instructed employees to “push through,” and repurposed existing equipment in the paint shop to make up for two $1M machines that had to be scrapped.
Tellingly, Tesla didn’t report the fire to the Fremont Fire Department. Keep in mind, this kind of behavior is precisely what Tesla had been accused of in the first place — covering up accident and injury reports, and failing to inform the authorities when such events occur. Fires in paint shops are also quite rare in automotive manufacturing — Tesla’s four fires in four years is well above the typical rate. And according to Tesla employees, the reason this is happening is because Musk has prioritized vehicle production to the almost-complete exclusion of all else. Here’s CNBC directly:
Two Tesla employees say that vehicle production goals have been the highest priority in recent months, sometimes at the expense of fire and environmental considerations. They said, for example, that months before the April fire, the sprinkler heads were clogged and coated at least an inch thick of paint and clear-coat. Filters below the paint booths and exhaust systems that clean and carry air into and out of the building were also visibly coated, they added.
A former paint shop employee said associates there are given minimal training — just what they need to meet OSHA safety requirements — before they are put to work on jobs that need more specialized skills. The result is that while Tesla has invested in state-of-the-art equipment, these inexperienced employees don’t follow best practices. The result: botched jobs and a potentially unsafe environment, according to the former employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Workers are hopeful things may soon change. Since early April, Tesla has replaced some sprinkler heads, and put out a request for quotes on new air filtration equipment.
Musk’s recent temper tantrums make more sense viewed in the light of a company that’s struggling to deliver the products it has promised while encountering exactly the problems others have reported. While Tesla should be able to resolve these issues over the long term, it’s clear that there’ve been safety and reporting issues at the plant — precisely the issues the Center for Investigative Reporting identified in the first place. And while it’s a separate issue from the question of worker safety at Tesla plants, it’d probably help the company if people stopped slamming into large stationary emergency vehicles while Autopilot is engaged — especially now that Musk’s much-beloved talking point about how Autopilot makes cars 40 percent safer has been debunked. Our own David Cardinal has some insight into why that’s a heavy lift for Tesla and other companies.
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