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California opens investigation into Tesla factory's safety conditions

California opens investigation into Tesla factory's safety conditions
Vehicles are assembled at the Tesla production facility in Fremont, Calif. (Tesla)

California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health said Wednesday it has opened an investigation of working conditions at Tesla's factory in Fremont, Calif., where the company is struggling to boost production of its troubled Model 3 electric sedan before it starts running out of cash.

The 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 California Department of Industrial Relations, which oversees Cal-OSHA.

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The action comes four days after an investigative journalism radio show aired a story saying that Tesla is illegally undercounting injuries at its Fremont assembly plant. The company issued a strong denial, calling the show, Reveal, an "extremist organization."

"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 company said on its website.

Reveal, run by the Center for Investigative Reporting, is distributed to public radio stations across the country. It said its reporting was based on internal Tesla documents and interviews with dozens of workers, including five former members of Tesla's safety team.

Workers told Reveal that injuries such as headaches produced by breathing fumes from toxic glue, a head injury resulting from a fall, and various repetitive strain injuries were classified as simple first aid or not related to work at all.

The story also took Chief Executive Elon Musk to task for allegedly telling safety officials he didn't like the color yellow, which is why equipment and pedestrian lanes are marked with gray stripes, not yellow. (Tesla pointed out that although the floor markings are gray, yellow signs, guardrails, and posts appear throughout the plant.)

In a separate text version of the story, Reveal links to documents that show safety team members complained to Tesla executives about what they saw as dangerous conditions and injury reporting problems before becoming discouraged and quitting the company.

Tesla accused Reveal of participating in a plot to encourage workers at Fremont to unionize. The United Auto Workers union is in the midst of an organization drive that has not yet proved successful.

In a statement released late Wednesday, Tesla said the charges are baseless. "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," a spokesperson said.

A Cal-OSHA injury investigation last year found no violations, he said. "We have never in the entire history of our company received a violation for inaccurate or incomplete injury record-keeping."

Tesla, which portrays itself as a company concerned with sustainable energy and the future of the planet, has long wrestled with workplace safety complaints.

In 2016, The Times wrote that government records showed workplace injuries at the Fremont plant occurred at higher rates than the average for all auto plants, and with greater frequency than even sawmills and slaughterhouses, although most of the Tesla injuries appeared to be related to long hours and ergonomic design. In February, Tesla boasted that it had lowered its injury rate dramatically in 2017, about level with auto-industry norms.

Orly Lobel, a professor at the privately run University of San Diego and a specialist in labor safety issues, said Tesla probably is more concerned about bad publicity than any penalties that might come out of a Cal-OSHA investigation.

OSHA "is not a very feared agency because its powers are low and its teeth are not very sharp," Lobel said. Although businesses have many reasons to care about workplace safety, from maintaining a productive workforce to fear of lawsuits, most companies see fines resulting from OSHA investigations as a cost of doing business.

Given what else is happing at Tesla — production problems, quality problems, looming cash problems, bond-rating downgrades — "Tesla can't be enjoying this publicity," she said.

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But Lobel said the company could be hurting its image with unfounded accusations against Reveal. "Nowadays everything's so messy," she said. "Our president is always calling things 'fake news.' We don't want that to filter down."

While Tesla's media relations department keeps a tight lid on information, Musk himself is known for loose talk that sometimes gets him into trouble.

In a Rolling Stone article on Musk that ran in November, Musk revealed his attitude toward safety, at least where his children are concerned. He referred to Family Rule No. 1 from the book "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy": "Don't panic." In the Musk home, he said, safety is No. 3. "There's not even a Rule Number Two. But even though there's nothing in second place, safety is not getting promoted to number two."

The work pace in Fremont is likely to only increase. Musk shut down the Model 3 assembly line this week and sent workers home while the company rips out some parts of the heavily automated line to install systems that are more human-centric. When it restarts next week, according to a leaked email memo from Musk, the company will add a third shift to keep the line running 24/7, to boost production to forecast levels. He said Tesla will be hiring 400 more workers every week for several weeks.

UPDATES:

4:25 p.m.: This article has been updated with Tesla's response to the Cal-OSHA investigation.

3:45 p.m.: This article has been updated with a staff written account.

This article was originally published at 12 p.m.

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