Tesla Inc. has suspended production of its Model 3 sedan for four or five days, the second time in about two months the upstart automaker has interrupted its assembly line for the vehicle.
Meanwhile, Reveal, the weekly newsletter of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) is out with an exposé suggesting safety issues and unreported workplace injuries at Tesla’s Fremont, California electric vehicle plant.
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The Model 3 production snag “is another setback for the first model [Tesla’s Elon] Musk has tried to mass-manufacture,” Bloomberg reports. “In addition to trying to bring electric vehicles to the mainstream, the chief executive officer had sought to build a competitive advantage over established automakers by installing more robots to quickly produce vehicles. Last week, he acknowledged ‘excessive’ automation at Tesla was a mistake.”
Just a week before the shutdown, Musk had given a network TV show a tour of the plant and asserted the production line would maintain its production volume of 2,000 Model 3s per week—still well short of the company’s long-standing weekly target of 5,000 new cars, but well above its recent output of only 300. Earlier in April, the company said the process of clearing production bottlenecks in the first three months of the year included “several short factory shutdowns to upgrade equipment,” but industry analysts weren’t convinced.
“Shutting down for days on end during ramp is far from normal,” Kristin Dziczek of the Center for Automotive Research told Bloomberg. “Traditional automakers adjust bottlenecks on the fly during a launch,” agreed AutoPacific Inc. analyst Dave Sullivan. “This is totally out of the ordinary.”
The CIR investigation, meanwhile, paints a picture of an often dangerous work environment where robots and human workers are in close proximity, and Musk’s name and apparently epic impatience is often invoked to justify shortcuts that jeopardize worker safety.
“Concerned about bone-crunching collisions and the lack of clearly marked pedestrian lanes at the Fremont, California, plant, the general assembly line’s then-lead safety professional went to her boss, who she said told her, ‘Elon does not like the color yellow,’” the shade traditionally associated with workplace safety hazards, Reveal reports.
“The melding of cutting-edge technology and world-saving vision is Tesla Inc.’s big draw,” Reveal adds, and employees like Justine White, the safety lead, were drawn by Musk’s star power. “What she and some of her colleagues found, they said, was a chaotic factory floor where style and speed trumped safety.”
Data for 2015 and 2016 show injury and serious injury rates at Tesla far above the industry average. For 2017, the company proclaimed a significant reduction—from 8.1 to 6.2 injuries, and from 7.3 to 5.2 serious injuries, per 100 employees. But Reveal cites inhalation injuries, sprains, stress, and repetitive stress injuries that “never made it onto the official injury logs that state and federal law requires companies to keep.”
“Undercounting injuries is one symptom of a more fundamental problem at Tesla,” the CIR reports: “The company has put its manufacturing of electric cars above safety concerns, according to five former members of its environment, health and safety team who left the company last year. That, they said, has put workers unnecessarily in harm’s way.”
In one memorable incident, “White said she warned superiors about a potential explosion hazard but was told they would defer to production managers because fixing the problem would require stopping the production line.”
“Everything took a back seat to production,” said White, who oversaw safety for thousands of general assembly line workers from September 2016 to January 2017. “It’s just a matter of time before somebody gets killed.”
Tesla dismissed White’s reports as unsubstantiated and accused Reveal “of being a tool in an ongoing unionization drive,” the article states.
“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 company said in a statement.
Reveal maintains that Tesla “is often in a state of frenzied production,” with “immense pressure to ramp up manufacturing” of the Model 3 and inadequate safety instructions. “Former employees said they faced 12-hour workdays, faulty equipment, and paltry training as they scrambled to come up with workarounds on the fly to get cars out the door.”