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Tesla Releases Statement on Worker Safety Days Before Scathing Report

Tesla Factory California

In the face of what it describes as “a concerted and professional media push intended to raise questions about safety at Tesla,” the California electric automaker has attempted to counter an apparent unionization tactic.

In a May 14th blog post titled “Creating the Safest Car Factory in the World,” Tesla said it was contacted by numerous media sources claiming to have spoken with similar workers at its Fremont assembly plant. The automaker sees this as an attempt by both the United Auto Workers and Tesla employees intent on organizing the plant to use instances of workplace injury as an organizational tool.

This morning, the story Tesla was working to get ahead of landed in The Guardian.

In it, Fremont workers describe injuries suffered on the job and seeing co-workers carted off in ambulances after fainting. The incidents are painted as being the result of long working hours and a strict production schedule.

“I’ve seen people pass out, hit the floor like a pancake and smash their face open,” Jonathan Galescu, a Tesla production technician, told The Guardian. “They just send us to work around him while he’s still lying on the floor.â€�

Other workers provided their own stories from the production line, including Michael Sanchez, currently on disability leave due to two herniated discs in his neck. Sanchez and his employer disagree as to the cause. To the worker, the injury was from working on a vehicle suspended above him for years.

Tesla admits its recordable incident rate (TRIR) was above the industry average between 2013 and 2016, though it hasn’t released specific figures. This isn’t the first time the company has found itself on the defensive over employee conditions. In February, as the UAW campaign began in earnest, employee Jose Moran published a blog post detailing less-than-favorable conditions at the plant.

A year ago, Tesla announced it would begin paying a full wage to foreign subcontractors found to be working for just $5 an hour.

In its blog post, Tesla advised fans and would-be buyers: “Watch for these articles to downplay or ignore our actual 2017 safety data and to instead focus on a small number of complaints and anecdotes that are not representative of what is actually occurring in our factory of over 10,000 workers.”

To maintain production levels and survive as a company, the company claimed, “some Tesla employees have worked significant amounts of overtime.” This mention was placed in a historical context. Last year, the automaker added a third shift at Fremont, which it claims lowered average working time to 42 hours a week, cutting overtime hours by 60 percent as a result. An “Ergonomics Team” was brought on board in 2015.

Tesla claims its TRIR has dropped to 4.6 at the end of the first quarter of 2017, a figure 32-percent lower than the industry average of 6.7. The third shift and other factors “led to a 52% reduction in lost time incidents and a 30% reduction in recordable incidents from the first quarter of 2016 to the first quarter of 2017,” it claims.

Speaking to The Guardian, Tesla CEO Elon Musk was unusually candid about his perception of the company, and its finances.

“It’s incredibly hurtful, and, I think, false for anyone to claim that I don’t care,” said Musk, adding that his desk was purposely situated “in the worst place in the factory, the most painful place,” rather than “some comfortable corner office.â€�

Claiming his company’s sky-high market valuation “is higher than we have any right to deserve,” Musk stated, “We’re a money-losing company. This is not some situation where, for example, we are just greedy capitalists who decided to skimp on safety in order to have more profits and dividends and that kind of thing. It’s just a question of how much money we lose. And how do we survive? How do we not die and have everyone lose their jobs?â€�

Many of the workers interviewed for the story shared Musk’s enthusiasm for an electric-powered driving future, sustainability, and other trappings of the EV sphere. Still, Tesla’s quasi mea culpa isn’t likely to water down efforts to unionize the plant — something Musk would desperately like to avoid. Production of the affordable Model 3, which should begin in a couple of months, exists on a very strict timeline.

With Model 3 orders in the high 300,000 range and the company still only flirting with profitability, Musk likely feels he can’t afford to have labor action slow down the production process.

Tesla’s blog post signed off with a swipe against the gathering crowd of unionists.

“The alternative is to stop improving and to instead do what the rest of the industry, including the UAW, has always done,” the automaker said. “But being industry average would make our safety 32% worse.”

[Image: Maurizio Pesce/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)]

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