Elon Musk questioned by Tesla stockholders about worker safety

Tesla held its annual stockholder meeting this month, and co-founder/CEO Elon Musk was asked to speak about worker safety problems at their plants. He briefly mentioned the topic in his prepared remarks, but was probed later about it by a stockholder. The question came from @sunabeepdeep who asked:

“What changes are being made to address worker safety?”

Public attention on working conditions at Tesla’s manufacturing plant in Fremont, CA was prompted most recently by a May 18 story in The Guardian. Reporter Julia Carrie Wong spoke to current and former employees who described intense production pressure, lots of overtime, and workers getting hurt. Six days later, came “Analysis of Tesla Injury Rates: 2014 to 2017,” by the Oakland, CA-based WorkSafe. The authors dissect and rebut Tesla’s claims that their employee injury rate is less than half the industry average.

Musk answered @sunabeepdeep’s question this way:

“This is something we are driving really hard on. Meeting with the safety team every week to see what more we can do to get better. …I think we are well on our way to having an injury rate that is half that of the rest of the auto industry and way better than any other car company.

A key change that was actually already made late last year was having three shifts instead of two. A lot of the injuries would happen when somebody had like a 10-, 11- hour day. You just get tired, that’s when you tend to get injured. Having three shifts made a huge difference to injury rate, and redesigning a lot of processes to be a lot more ergonomic, and improving the fixtures and tooling.

There’s a lot of detailed work that needs to go into avoiding repetitive stress injuries. I’m really proud of what the safety team is doing and I think we are making huge progress towards being the safest automotive company in the world.” [39:30 – 40:50]

I want to give Musk the benefit of the doubt that he strives to be the safest place to work building automobiles. It was a reasonable place to start by addressing long work hours and extended shifts. Those factors are are associated with adverse health consequences. Musk also recognizes that preventing musculoskeletal injuries often requires work station redesign and improvements in tools and equipment. I hope the recognition has turned into implementation.

In an email to employees sent the week before the stockholders’ meeting, Musk said:

“…I would like to meet every injured person as soon as they are well, so that I can understand from them exactly what we need to do to make it better. I will then go down to the production line and perform the same task that they perform.”

But what I haven’t read or heard in Tesla’s statements are the integrated ways in which front-line workers are involved in the safety program and injury prevention.

There was one particular thing in WorkSafe’s report that troubled me. Workers reported that Tesla management stonewalled their request for copies of the plant’s injury logs. Workers have a right to obtain those records. Cal/OSHA’s regulations are clear on the matter. They require an employer to provide the logs and annual summaries to “an employee, former employee, personal representative, or authorized employee representative” by the end of the next business day.

Tesla employee Jonathan Galescu told WorkSafe:

“We need to know the facts about how often workers are getting injured, and how those injuries are happening. It took us several attempts just to get management to give us the information they’re required by law to provide.”

I’ve heard this story before, companies making excuses and taking their sweet time to provide injury logs to their employees.  They’ll say they are covered by HIPPA. If workers are trying to form a union, the company will use it pit workers against each other. They’ll assert that union organizers are getting their private medical records (which injury logs are not.)

Elon Musk’s vision is for a bold transition from fossil fuels to sustainable energy sources. Tesla’s investment in solar, auto, and battery technology is helping to realize that vision. The question is whether they will accomplish it on the high road of labor rights and worker safety. Or is Tesla heading down the same old path of making false claims about injury rates, ignoring workers’ safety requests, and blaming workers for their injuries?

I don’t think it is too late for Tesla to make a U-turn and head for the high road.