Tesla Probed by California Regulator on Workplace Conditions

(Bloomberg) -- California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health has opened an investigation into Tesla Inc. following a report about worker protections at the company’s lone auto plant in Fremont, California.

The state agency “takes seriously reports of workplace hazards and allegations of employers’ underreporting recordable work-related injuries and illnesses” and “currently has an open inspection at Tesla,” said Erika Monterroza, a spokeswoman for the state’s industrial relations department.

California requires employers to maintain what are called Log 300 records of injuries and illnesses. Monterroza said that while the state doesn’t disclose details of open inspections, they typically include a review of employers’ Log 300 records and checks to ensure that serious injuries are reported within eight hours as required by law.

A story this week by the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal alleged that Tesla failed to report serious injuries on legally mandated reports, making its numbers appear better than they actually were. The website cited former members of Tesla’s environment, health and safety team saying Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk’s personal preferences were often invoked as reason not to address potential hazards.

Tesla’s Pushback

Tesla pushed back against the story in a lengthy blog post on Monday, calling it “an ideologically motivated attack by an extremist organization working directly with union supporters to create a calculated disinformation campaign against Tesla.” The United Auto Workers union has been trying to organize Fremont workers for more than a year.

In responding to news of California’s investigation, Tesla said in an emailed statement Wednesday that the injury rate at Fremont was lower than when Toyota Motor Corp. and then-General Motors Corp. operated the factory with UAW-represented workers.

“We care deeply about the safety and well-being of our people and strive to do better every day,” the company said.

California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as CAL/OSHA, opened its inspection late Tuesday. Investigations can be triggered by a number of reasons, including internal complaints from employees. The agency declined to say what triggered its latest probe, which could take as long as six months to complete.

Full Cooperation

“Cal-OSHA is required to investigate any claims that are made, regardless of whether they have merit or are baseless (as we believe these are), and we always provide our full cooperation,” Tesla said in its statement. The agency investigated the company’s injury reporting and record-keeping last year and closed it without finding any violations or taking further action, according to the carmaker.

Cal/OSHA’s regulations define a serious injury or illness as one that requires employee hospitalization for more than 24 hours for a matter other than medical observation, or one in which part of the body is lost or permanent disfigurement occurs.

“We have never in the entire history of our company received a violation for inaccurate or incomplete injury record-keeping,” the company said.

Worker Stories

The Reveal investigation followed a February story by Buzzfeed in which former Tesla workers alleged that production pressure and failures to sufficiently rotate employees’ tasks spurred serious injuries. In May 2017, the Guardian reported that Tesla managers pressed employees to work through pain and belittled safety complaints.

Musk told the Guardian in a phone interview that he had placed his own desk in “the most painful place” in the Fremont factory and noted that Tesla was losing money. “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?”

Tesla is at a critical juncture in terms of both production and financial pressures. In an internal email, Musk announced this week that Fremont would move to a 24/7 schedule in an effort to produce 6,000 Model 3 sedans a week by the end of June. He tweeted last week that the company had over-relied on automation and is now on a hiring spree, seeking to add hundreds of workers to a factory that already employs roughly 10,000 people.

Bloomberg News has spoken with several people who’ve worked at Fremont who say that Tesla’s push to work long hours and its unresponsiveness to worker concerns have contributed to an unsafe environment.

“They’re still 100 percent just about production,” said Dennis Duran, a pro-union employee who works in the Fremont paint shop. He said he’s complained to management that “if the line goes down, I see 20 maintenance guys trying to get it up and running. I don’t see that priority with health and safety.”

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