By on April 17, 2018

Depending on who you believe, Tesla is either the innocent victim of a shadowy, union-backed disinformation campaign peddled by so-called journalists, or a cynical, profit-chasing company willing to underplay injury statistics in a bid to keep its operation looking viable and progressive.

It’s not hard to fall into one of these two camps.

There’s a battle raging between the electric automaker and the journalists behind an explosive story published in Reveal, a publication of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. In it, Reveal claims workers at Tesla’s Fremont assembly plant face unsafe working conditions resulting from an all-hands-on-deck-style work culture. Workplace injuries are often categorized as personal medical issues, the report stated, and CEO Elon Musk’s dislike of the color yellow (a color used to mark workplace hazards) has created further risk to employees.

False, false, and false, Tesla claims.

The story details one worker’s diagnosed glue inhalation injury, which “never made it onto the official injury logs that state and federal law requires companies to keep. Neither did reports from other factory workers of sprains, strains and repetitive stress injuries from piecing together Tesla’s sleek cars.”

Reveal went on to say that “company officials labeled the injuries personal medical issues or minor incidents requiring only first aid, according to internal company records obtained by Reveal.”

In a blog post rebutting the Reveal piece, titled “A Not So Revealing Story,” Tesla refutes the claims on a criticism-by-criticism basis, The automaker did not mince words when describing what it believes to be the real motivation behind the story.

“In our view, what they portray as investigative journalism is in fact an ideologically motivated attack by an extremist organization working directly with union supporters to create a calculated disinformation campaign against Tesla.” the automaker wrote. “The piece even includes an interview with Worksafe – the same organization that the UAW enlisted to publish a negative report against Tesla last year, and whose board includes labor union officials and advocates.”

Tesla has waged a battle with UAW organizers for the past couple of years, and it’s no understatement to call the fight a nasty one. In its rebuttal, the automaker claims it went over the injury claims reported by Reveal and found no evidence of improper injury reporting. Employers, Tesla stated, rely on third-party medical opinions for such reports.

In response to claims of workers feeling unsafe on the production floor (detailed by a worker’s story that included safety concerns going unaddressed by superiors and worry-related sleep loss), Tesla responded by saying it has hired a VP of Environmental, Health and Safety, and that workers receive proper safety training. It’s a real he said/she said situation.

Reveal, which learned of Tesla’s planned rebuttal it published its piece, claims it interviewed over three dozen former and current employees, and that while some of them supported unionization, others did not.

One point raised in the story — the missing color yellow — is an easier complaint to track. Tesla claims the color yellow “is everywhere,” providing a photo of a yellow robot as an example. It seems this robot only comes in the color yellow, however. For readers to gauge for themselves just how well marked the Fremont floor is, last week’s CBS interview with Musk provides ample opportunity to peer over shoulders. The intrepid Bozi Tatarevic did just this, and posted his findings and observations on Twitter.

Judge for yourself.

After going into its blog post with both barrels blazing, Tesla’s reply ends with a kind of half mea culpa that’s sure to enrage industry watchers.

“This is not to say that there aren’t real issues that need to be dealt with at Tesla or that we’ve made no mistakes with any of the 37,000 people who work at our company,” the automaker wrote. “However, there should be absolutely no question that we care deeply about the well-being of our employees and that we try our absolute hardest to do the right thing and to fail less often. With each passing month, we improve safety further and will keep doing so until we have the safest factory in the world by far. We welcome any suggestions that might help achieve that goal.”

If I’ve learned one thing in this business, and in the career that preceded my time at TTAC, it’s that no sacred cow exists that can count on media support after it tramples all over the profession. Hangers-on and apologists exist in every field of work, sure, but the (often very) limited goodwill afforded to politicos and companies dries up pretty fast when those doing the writing find themselves in the crosshairs. Even in the periphery of the crosshairs.

Safety accusations aside, this could get real messy for Tesla.

[Image: Tesla]

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23 Comments on “Tesla vs the Media: Automaker Slams Investigative Report on Factory Safety...”


  • avatar
    Dilrod

    So, have the workers complained to OSHA? Having been in HR and the “safety guy” at a plant, AND having gone through a surprise OSHA inspection resulting in fines, etc., I’d be interested to see what they say.

    • 0 avatar
      tylanner

      Yeah, OSHA can walk-in unannounced and talk to anyone they want….issue fines…stop production…get court orders for information….

      Willful violation of an injury report is taken very seriously but I’d bet that those who are sourced in the investigation are no longer with the company and the separation was probably not mutual.

      OSHA is the regulatory body here and not CIR or Worksafe or Reveal…Defying OSHA would be stupid because their oversight and requirements are relatively modest but a coverup is much much worse than the crime here.

    • 0 avatar
      Deontologist

      I’m surprised there hasn’t been a mass shooting yet at Tesla.

      I am, however, expecting one soon, especially when Tesla goes bankrupt. Maybe someone will put a few rounds in Elon for essentially treating his workers like slaves.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    “…there should be absolutely no question that we care deeply about the well-being of our employees…”

    Even if true, from what I understand most of the workers in their plant are not employees, they’re contractors. And the reason companies hire contractors is they don’t have to care about them. I’m not a Tesla hater, but wouldn’t surprise me at all that they’re cutting corners with workers’ safety.

    • 0 avatar
      jhefner

      Having worked as a contractor in a hazardous work environment (petrochemical plant); I can assure you that safety regulations and equipment like PPE applies to all workers; not just employees. As others have said; not providing a safe working environment will get you fined and even shut down by OSHA; regardless of whether they are employees or contractors. There are other ways they save money hiring contractors; but safety is not one of them.

      And a serious workplace injury could result in a visit by OSHA, regardless of whether it is an employee or contractor.

    • 0 avatar
      theBrandler

      As someone who’s worked as a contractor where radiation was a threat, your assertion is dead wrong. OSHA still applies, heck OSHA rules applied even for the “eventuality” that the fire department showed up. We had to keep things safe all the time for them, and train with them yearly. OSHA rules even applied to visitors and students. There were no exceptions.

      Now that being said, Musk has friends pretty high up in the government. He may not get along with the current president, but the people who really run various government organizations don’t change much from administration to administration.

      So either Tesla is following OSHA well enough that this is all media hyperbole, or Musk has friends in the right places keeping OSHA out of his factories.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      I’m not claiming OSHA doesn’t apply, I’m saying the fact their workers are essentially temps reflects how Tesla management values them.

      Admittedly, the worst repeat safety violators that I’m aware of are in the mining industry, which has not been covered by OSHA. However, the fact that OSHA has recently tightened up their rules for dealing with repeat offenders does indicate there have been problems at some companies.

    • 0 avatar
      civicjohn

      Russycle,

      You may have hit a nerve. “Independent Contractors” are much easier to squelch. But if EM is sleeping on the factory floor, it would seem they would be lined up to speak with the musky-smelling Musk as he rolls out of his sleeping bag.

  • avatar
    phila_DLJ

    stephen_colbert_with_popcorn.gif

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    It’s exactly the public nature of these comments that precludes the need for a union.

    As for the claims themselves, accidents will surely increase when people are driven too hard. On the other hand, the ‘yellow’ comments seem outright preposterous, which makes me doubt the volume or weight of their claims.

    Tesla, once again, should take the humble route and simply say “we takes worker safety seriously, and are cooperating with all parties to investigate the claims and make improvements where necessary.” Pressing the crazy button every time is not helpful to anyone.

    • 0 avatar
      cdotson

      I personally found the statement about the color yellow interesting. I noticed in a photo from inside the Tesla factory that TTAC ran in an article just the other day how devoid of yellow the production machinery was. The use of white paint on the body gantry equipment struck me as particularly odd; those unguarded moving hazards that are almost universally painted safety (warning) yellow with parts of them safety orange. With the arms as pictured painted white while carrying a white unibody you could easily lose track of the gantry arms and whack your head if you were seated on a low stool.

      • 0 avatar
        SaulTigh

        I’ve never been in a manufacturing plant, but what you’re saying explains the sea of yellow in the Ford plant photo that was posted at the above twitter link as a comparison to the Tesla plant photos.

        Of course, they make a product that allows the right people to virtue signal, so they’ll receive a big fat pass for as long as it’s a politically viable option.

        • 0 avatar
          cdotson

          Run a Google image search for “automotive assembly line” and compare it to the results for “Tesla assembly line.”

          The Tesla line looks much more stylish. It’s as if it was designed and specified by someone who had never been in a manufacturing plant. All that white will be he11 to keep clean.

          The aversion to yellow must be real. All those red robot arms in Fremont are Fanuc robots whose standard color is yellow. They must have had them made red just for Tesla, likely at extra cost. I work as a mechanical engineer for a company that designs and builds custom factory automation and integrates various robots and I’ve never seen a Fanuc in here that wasn’t yellow.

          • 0 avatar
            65corvair

            Fact check, cdotson is correct about Fanuc robots being yellow. We have several where I work, and we assume they are “safety” yellow for a reason.

          • 0 avatar
            SCE to AUX

            You know, a Google image check of Fanuc robots shows exclusively yellow. The only red ones are Tesla’s.

            Maybe it means nothing, but I admit that it’s odd.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    As usual, the truth likely falls somewhere in the middle.

  • avatar
    walleyeman57

    If Mr Musk thinks productivity is bad now- wait until the uaw determines the work rules and classifications.

    • 0 avatar
      indi500fan

      If Musk can keep his factory on non-union status…a factory that is located in Progressive NorCal and had UAW in place for decades previously, he truly is the genius his fans make him out to be.

  • avatar
    65corvair

    Working for a cereal company, there is great pressure not to have a reportable injury. The third party that is used to decide if it was work related will always favor the employer. Unless there is blood on the floor it was not work related. I knew someone with carpel tunnel surgery that was classified as not work related. So you can have an unsafe work place and still look good.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      This is true. In my last job, our safety officer was rewarded for having a safe work floor, and corporate kept track of the accident-free man hours.

      Result: Some workers suffered bad injuries and were discouraged from reporting them, just to keep the metric high. It was disgusting.

  • avatar
    Master Baiter

    This same thing happens in China factories.

    /s

    .
    .

  • avatar
    Carlson Fan

    I’d love to see the inside of that assembly plant, I’ll bet it’s an absolute mess!


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