Labor Group Says Tesla Plant's Worker Injury Rate Tops Industry Average
As Tesla works to ramp up one of the fastest expansions in the history of U.S. auto production, a labor-advocacy group says Elon Musk’s main assembly plant also has unusually high rates of worker injuries.
Tesla’s Fremont, California, plant had an injury rate that was 31 percent higher than the U.S. average for automakers in 2015 — the most recent year for which industrywide figures are available — with a total recordable incidence rate of 8.8 per 100 workers versus 6.7 per 100 for the industry, according to a report by Worksafe. The injury-related data comes from reports filed with the U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration and shared with Tesla employees, said the group.
The electric-car maker’s rate improved a bit to 8.1 injury incidents per 100 workers in 2016, though was likely still above the industry average (complete figures for 2016 aren’t yet available), Oakland-based Worksafe said. The rate of serious injuries at the plant, measured in worker days away from their normal duties, was double the national average in 2015 and likely at a similarly high level in 2016, the report says.
“The discrepancies in these numbers demand at least an explanation from the company,” Worksafe Executive Director Doug Parker said on a conference call on Wednesday. California’s workplace safety agency “would be an appropriate entity to get to the bottom of that.”
The group was asked to review conditions by the United Auto Workers union, which hopes to organize workers at the Fremont plant. Along with compiling OSHA reports received from workers, Worksafe compared injury rates at the plant against industrywide figures sourced from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Parker said.
“We may have had some challenges in the past as we were learning how to become a car company, but what matters is the future and with the changes we’ve made, we now have the lowest injury rate in the industry by far,” the company said in a statement. “Our goal is to have as close to zero injuries as humanly possible and to become the safest factory in the auto industry.”
Worksafe disputes Tesla’s claim of a dramatic reduction in injuries in this year’s first quarter and adjustments to figures for 2016.
“Tesla’s significant recent revisions to both its 2016 and 2017 injury data call into question the reliability of the company’s recordkeeping,” the report said. “The injury data Tesla has recorded so far for Q1 of 2017 is too preliminary to be considered accurate given Tesla’s somewhat erratic reporting patterns. Moreover, one quarter is not a sufficient length of time to accurately identify a meaningful and lasting trend in injury reduction.”
Safety and workplace conditions at Fremont have drawn attention this year, beginning with signs of displeasure by an employee who said it might be useful to join the UAW. A feature story by The Guardian this month also detailed worker complaints about safety at the plant. Two workers who said they’d sustained serious injuries at the at the plant, Charley Briese and Alan Ochoa, described their experience on a conference call with reporters and voiced support for union representation for its workers.
Currently, Musk is pushing the Tesla plant to boost vehicle output from fewer than 80,000 vehicles in 2016 to at least 100,000 this year, and a production rate reaching 500,000 units in 2018. By 2020, Musk wants to be able to build as many as 1 million vehicles annually, with the addition of the lower-priced Model 3 sedan and Model Y crossover.
Industry analysts are generally skeptical that the youngest U.S. automaker will be able to hit that target on Musk’s timetable.
When Tesla issued quarterly results this month, Musk said the company intends to reach a production rate for the new Model 3, priced from $35,000, of 5,000 units per week late this year” …and to 10,000 vehicles per week at some point in 2018.”
Although Musk has faced numerous hurdles at Tesla over the past decade, delivering the Model 3 on time and ramping up production as rapidly as hoped looks to be among his toughest. Doing so while ensuring maximum workplace safety makes that even more daunting.