Tesla Factory: Unsafe at Any (Line) Speed?

Tesla suffers from a worker injury rate higher than the industry average, both injuries per 100 workers and time lost from work. Tesla doesn’t dispute the numbers, but says it’s better in the first quarter of this year. All this comes at a time when some workers are pushing to unionize the factory.

Tesla produced more than 80,000 cars in 2016 and aims to produce 500,000 vehicles in 2018. Such a speedy ramp-up with newly installed assembly lines presents potential challenges for worker safety as well as quality control.

Tesla factory (Credit: Steve Jurvetson/Flickr)

Injury rates: claims, counter-claims

At Tesla’s factory in Fremont, CA, injury rates in 2015 were 31 percent higher than at the average auto factory: 8.8 injuries per worker in 2015, versus 6.7 per 100 for the industry as a whole. The 2016 rate improved to 8.1.

Serious injuries at Tesla were 7.9 per 100 workers versus 3.9, or more than twice the industry average. The data comes from Worksafe, a worker advocacy group, using injury reports reported to the Department of Labor and available to workers. Worksafe then generated its own report and analysis.

Tesla says the overall injury fell dramatically in the first quarter, to 4.6 per 100 workers. Worksafe says one quarter isn’t enough to judge changes, because of possible factory downtime for either holidays or line repairs and changes.

In a statement, Tesla responded:

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. Our goal is to have as close to zero injuries as humanly possible and to become the safest factory in the auto industry.

Tesla Gigafactory for batteries in Reno, Nevada (Credit: Tesla)

All factories get safer over time

Factory work gets safer over time, although you can’t do a lot about the boredom many workers experience. With auto factories, the most dangerous tasks have been automated: paint booths, parts stamping, and welding. Hoists help workers lift and position items they couldn’t lift on their own, such as windshields, to reduce the effort required. Still, there are forklifts scurrying about the factory floor, parts bins one can trip over, and repeating the same tasks every day can lead to repetitive strain (or stress) injury, RSI.

Safety advocates say that when factories run required overtime shifts regularly, injuries per worker hour may increase. It’s likely Tesla will need considerable overtime as it ramps up the $ 35,000 Tesla Model 3 this year. Tesla says it has almost 400,000 pre-orders.

Tesla has about 30,000 employees worldwide, 10,000 of which are at the Fremont assembly plant. While the plant is new to Tesla, the site has been used for auto manufacturing since the 1960s. General Motors operated it from 1962-1982. It was a GM-Toyota joint manufacturing venture, New United Motor Manufacturing (NUMMI) from 1984-2009. Tesla acquired it in 2010 and delivered the first Fremont-manufactured Tesla, a Model S, in June 2012.

At the same time, Tesla is building its Gigafactory in Reno, Nevada,  in a joint venture with Panasonic. The 4.9-million square foot facility (think 50 Home Depots under one roof) will by 2018 will on its own double the world’s production capacity for lithium-ion batteries. That’s even when two-thirds of the facility remains to be built out.

(Top photo credit: Steve Jurvetson/Flickr)

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