FOCUS: Tesla Employees Raise Concerns as Production Set to Jump

FREMONT, Calif. (The Mercury News/TNS) -
Tesla Employees, Raise Concerns, Production

As Tesla sets aggressive new production goals, its workers are sending a clear message: Don’t forget about us.

Several Tesla employees in recent weeks have shared stories of workplace injuries and have called for the electric vehicle maker to improve safety standards. Tesla CEO Elon Musk maintains that worker safety and satisfaction remain top issues.

“We’re trying to do good for the world and we believe in doing the right thing,” Musk told the British news site The Guardian. “And that extends to caring about the health and safety of everyone at the company.”

The Guardian on Thursday reported that ambulances were called to the factory more than 100 times since 2014 for worker ailments ranging from dizziness and fainting to seizures and chest pains.

Factory employees have raised concerns publicly over work conditions since February. Workers have coordinated with the United Automobile Workers union in an attempt to organize the plant and bring attention to safety on the factory floor.

The increased pressure from workers comes as Musk pushes his team to launch the new Model 3, its lower-cost sedan, and pump up production from 84,000 last year to 500,000 vehicles next year.

In a blog post, Tesla said it has improved work conditions and added a robust program to help injured employees recover from work-related maladies. The company’s total recordable incident rate, a standard safety rating, is nearly one-third better than the industry average this year.

Tesla records also show that 75 percent of the ambulance trips were unrelated to work injuries, for example, an illness or another pre-existing condition.

About 10,000 employees work at the former NUMMI plant in Fremont, including administrators, engineers and hourly production employees.

Tesla added an extra shift, from two to three, last year to cut back on worker hours and stress. It also established an ergonomics team and designed its new vehicle production process to minimize worker movement and stress.

Several Tesla employees have logged complaints and come forward with their stories.

Jonathan Galescu, a production worker and safety coordinator, told this newspaper workplace safety was not always a primary concern on the factory floor when he started in October 2014. Galescu said he and other workers were afraid to mention workplace injuries for fear of being labeled complainers or losing their jobs.

Galescu said a few months after he started work, an 80-pound piece of a vehicle struck him in the chest and knocked him down. He was sent home in a taxi, but he returned to work the next day — sore with a large bruise on his chest — because he feared getting in trouble.

“I’ve seen people pass out on the line,” he said. “Everything is go, go, go, rush, rush, rush.”

Pressure on workers increased last year when Tesla pushed to produce the new Model X and set production records. Workers pulled 12-hour shifts, sometimes seven days a week. The factory floor was fueled by candy bars and energy drinks supplied by managers, Galescu said.

Accidents and injuries were part of the job, he said.

“You’re so worn out,” he said. “Things are going to happen.”

Galescu said managers have started to take complaints more seriously, and factory culture has been changing to allow workers to feel more open about raising safety problems.

Musk told The Guardian he knew the workers were putting in long, hard hours. At one point last year, Musk slept in a sleeping bag on the factory floor to oversee production and put in more hours than the shift workers.

Musk said the company continues to improve its safety record.

“We’re a money-losing company,” Musk told the news site. “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?”

It’s the latest in a series of complaints raised by company employees.

DeWitt Lambert, another production worker, alleged unsafe work conditions in a suit filed in March. Among other claims, Lambert said the company failed to properly rotate his position on the production line, leading to a back injury last year.

“After working in a confined space for 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, and without being rotated for three months,” the suit said, “Mr. Lambert suffered a lumbar back strain that caused radiating pain starting from his lower back down to his upper buttocks, and resulted in a visit to the emergency room.”

Lambert claimed he requested to work from a chair but was refused. Tesla disputed several of the claims in the suit.

Last year, an investigation by this newspaper found that about 140 foreign workers employed by a subcontractor were paid as little as $5 an hour for construction work at the Fremont factory. One Slovenian worker was seriously injured when he fell through a loose tile on a roof.