The Industry

Report: Tesla Undercounted Injuries and Neglects Safety in its Factory

“It’s just a matter of time before somebody gets killed,” a former member of the company's safety team said.
“It’s just a matter of time before somebody gets killed,” a former member of the company’s safety team said.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Tesla has been disregarding factory safety measures and misrepresenting the number of injuries that result, according to a new report from Reveal News at the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Tesla’s rate of severe injuries was 83 percent higher than the industry average in 2016. The company subsequently claimed it was on the path to operating “the safest car factory in the world” when it managed to bring the rate down to industry standards in 2017. Yet Reveal obtained internal documents that apparently indicate that in its official reports to state and federal regulators, Tesla was counting serious injuries, including toxic glue inhalation and debilitating sprains, as personal medical issues or minor afflictions treatable by first aid. A safety professional told Reveal, “I saw injuries on there like broken bones and lacerations that they were saying were not recordable [as injuries].” Tesla has also reportedly neglected to factor in the injuries of temporary workers in some cases, even though the law requires them to do so.

Tesla took issue with Reveal’s investigation, characterizing the report in an email to Slate as “a completely false picture of Tesla and what it is actually like to work here” and “an ideologically motivated attack by an extremist organization working directly with union supporters.”

Five former members of Tesla’s environmental, health, and safety team, all of whom left the company in 2017, further told Reveal that leadership has sacrificed proper training and manufacturing precautions in order to streamline production. For example, these sources claimed that Tesla failed to contain the spread of carcinogenic silica dust and to inspect hoists before they were used to lift large car parts, which were ultimately responsible for repeated accidents.

While the former employees attributed some of the oversights to Tesla’s attempts to pick up the pace and reach production goals that it has repeatedly missed in the past year, they also claim that CEO Elon Musk’s aesthetic preferences have prevented factories from implementing conventional safety practices.

Justine White, who used to work as the lead safety professional for the general assembly line, alleged that the factories were not using enough yellow to mark hazards. When White told her superiors that the pedestrian lanes should be painted in that color, she was allegedly told that Musk does not like yellow, and so the factories continued to use different shades of gray. Other sources claimed that Musk is averse to displaying too many signs and to the warning sounds that forklifts emit when they back up.

Tesla told Slate that it relies on third-party medical professionals to review injuries and make a determination. The company also sent a statement on Reveal’s investigation:

We welcome constructive criticism, but those who care about journalistic integrity should strive for the truth above all. Unfortunately, the writers at Reveal paint a completely false picture of Tesla and what it is actually like to work here. In our view, what they portray as investigative journalism is in fact an ideologically motivated attack by an extremist organization working directly with union supporters to create a calculated disinformation campaign against Tesla. The piece even includes an interview with Worksafe—the same organization that the UAW enlisted to publish a negative report against Tesla last year, and whose board includes labor union officials and advocates.

This is not to say that there aren’t real issues that need to be dealt with at Tesla or that we’ve made no mistakes with any of the 37,000 people that work at our company. However, there should be no question whatsoever that we care deeply about the well-being of our employees and that we try our absolute hardest to do the right thing and to fail less often.  

Our goal is to be the safest factory on Earth. Last year, despite going through extreme challenges building an entirely new Model 3 production system, we nonetheless reduced our injury rate by 25%. Through a lot of hard work, our injury rate—which we diligently track, record, and update—has declined so much that it is now half what it was in the final years GM and Toyota owned and ran the same Fremont factory before Tesla took over. 

Moreover, with each passing month, we improve it further and will keep doing so until we have the safest factory in the world by far. We welcome any suggestions that might help achieve that goal.

Aaron Mak writes about technology for Slate.