Fires like these are not common in auto manufacturing. It is especially uncommon for a plant to have multiple fires in a paint shop.
According to the most recent available data from the National Fire Protection Association, local fire departments respond to 190 fires per year on average in maintenance or paint shop areas of factories and processing facilities. That is just 4 percent of fires that occur in all of manufacturing.
The rate of paint-shop fires in auto plants is far lower than that, says Jason Reason, a former OSHA officer and senior vice president of safety and health at Lewellyn Technology in Indiana.
"For the most part, corporations know how to control fire hazards associated with spraying operations, and work to establish a safety culture," said Reason. "If you're having multiple fires, you really need to audit your paint shop and make sure it never happens again, even if that means redesigning the whole thing."
A spokesperson for GM manufacturing, Dan Flores, noted: "At GM, we would consider a fire in a paint shop an extremely rare occurrence — that's because our paint shops operate in a very controlled manner."
Two Tesla employees say that vehicle production goals have been the highest priority in recent months, sometimes at the expense of fire and environmental considerations. They said, for example, that months before the April fire, the sprinkler heads were clogged and coated at least an inch thick of paint and clear-coat. Filters below the paint booths and exhaust systems that clean and carry air into and out of the building were also visibly coated, they added.
A former paint shop employee said associates there are given minimal training — just what they need to meet OSHA safety requirements — before they are put to work on jobs that need more specialized skills. The result is that while Tesla has invested in state-of-the-art equipment, these inexperienced employees don't follow best practices. The result: botched jobs and a potentially unsafe environment, according to the former employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Workers are hopeful things may soon change. Since early April, Tesla has replaced some sprinkler heads, and put out a request for quotes on new air filtration equipment.
On a tense earnings call in May, Musk plainly acknowledged that the paint shop at Tesla's Fremont factory poses a risk to mass-production of the Model 3 electric sedan.
The CEO said: "General assembly is probably our biggest risk, and I'm refocusing personally on that a lot in the next — in the coming month. And then our paint shop is maybe the second biggest risk after general assembly."
On the same call, he sought to assure analysts "[It's] not like you need brain surgery to get these things right."