Entrepreneurs

Elon Musk warns of ‘manufacturing hell’ to come—Tesla workers say factory safety is already worse than sawmills and slaughterhouses

Tesla CEO Elon Musk is celebrated by employees during the presentation of Model 3 vehicles in Fremont, California, July 28, 2017.
Andrej Sokolow | picture-alliance/dpa | AP
Tesla CEO Elon Musk is celebrated by employees during the presentation of Model 3 vehicles in Fremont, California, July 28, 2017.

Friday night, the billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk appeared in front of a cheering and adoring audience, much like a rockstar appears on stage before performing a show, to unveil the new Model 3 Tesla. The event was to celebrate the first 30 customers (all Tesla employees) getting their Model 3's.

Early production has been slow, but Musk expects to be able to produce 20,000 Model 3 Teslas per month by December. Ramping up production is going to be brutal, Musk warned.

"We're going to go through at least six months of manufacturing hell," the Tesla CEO told a group of journalists ahead of the Model 3 event. On stage, Musk echoed the sentiment.

According to the Fremont, Calif., factory workers, Tesla is already putting its employees through a lot.

"One of the most serious issues concerns our health and safety," says a letter a group of factory workers from Tesla's main Fremont, Calif., facility submitted to the independent board members of Tesla on Monday, just three days after the Model 3 event and amid an ongoing effort to unionize.

"Accidents happen every day. Severe incidents frequently impact morale and cause delays in production. We are losing great workers who are valuable to both our production team and to their families while they spend time on medical leave, recovering from preventable injuries."

In May, California-based worker safety organization Worksafe published an extensive report after it analyzed the log of work-related injuries and illnesses at Tesla.

Workers assemble cars on the line at the Tesla's factory in Fremont, California.
David Butow | Corbis | Getty Images
Workers assemble cars on the line at the Tesla's factory in Fremont, California.

It found that Tesla's "total recordable incidence rate" was 8.8 percent (8.8 injuries per 100 workers) in 2015, the last full-year that data is available for. That's 31 percent more than the 6.7 percent total recordable incidence rate for the automobile industry as a whole, the report found, citing Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

That 8.8 percent injury rate is higher than the similar injury rates of both sawmills and slaughterhouses, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Sawmills have an injury rate of 7.3 percent and slaughterhouses have an injury rate of 5.1 to 7.3 percent, depending on the type of processing.

The issue of worker safety at Tesla manufacturing facilities is not new. Tesla factory worker Jose Moran wrote a post on Medium in February detailing the conditions and proposing a union. "We are working hard to build the world's #1 car  —  not just electric, but overall. Unfortunately, however, I often feel like I am working for a company of the future under working conditions of the past," Moran wrote.

"Just as CEO Elon Musk is a respected champion for green energy and innovation, I hope he can also become a champion for his employees."

The workers say they want access to information about the dangers of the jobs they are doing, and they want a voice in the conversation about how to fix the safety issues.

Beyond safety concerns, the group wants clear guidelines on what is required to be promoted at the company. "Many of us have worked hard for years with the vague promise of a raise, to no end," the letter states.

Pay at the Fremont production facility starts at $18 per hour, which is below both the national average for auto workers ($25.58), according to The International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW).

"We strongly believe that a defined understanding of success and reward will have an impact on product quality," the letter says.

Additionally, the Tesla employees say they want to be free to express themselves without fear of retribution. Musk reportedly works to build a culture where employees are encouraged to speak up, specifically for safety reasons.

Yet the Tesla employees request "neutrality and non-retaliation agreements with workers, which protect workers' ability to speak freely. Such agreements help build positive relationships between management and frontline workers."

An email to Tesla seeking a response to the factory workers' letter had not been responded to by the time this story was published. However when the Los Angeles Times wrote about the safety numbers in May, Tesla acknowledged the problems and said it had made improvements to the factory conditions.

"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," a company spokesman told the Times. "With the changes we've made, we now have the lowest injury rate in the industry by far."

See also:
Elon Musk: 'Robots will be able to do everything better than us'

Warren Buffett and Bill Gates think it's 'crazy' to view job-stealing robots as bad

There's one thing that motivates Elon Musk above all else