Tesla Worker Safety Report Highlights Unreported Injuries

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By Fatima Hussein

Tesla Inc. is on the defensive after the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health opened a probe April 17 into the company’s worker safety conditions.

Cal/OSHA‘s actions come after a recent investigative report outlined a slew of alleged workplace safety violations—including, but not limited to assertions that Tesla mislabeled and underreported injuries that occurred in the workplace.

With allegations that workers have been “sliced,” “crushed,” and “burned” in the company’s Fremont facility, questions linger over how often under-reporting and mislabeling occur in the nation’s workplaces.

“We have been very vocal in taking issue with this reporting, and the notion that we ‘mislabeled’ injuries is inaccurate,” said Dave Arnold, a Tesla representative, who spoke to Bloomberg Environment.

In an emailed statement to Bloomberg Environment, Tesla doubled down on that notion: “Unlike other automakers who in the past have been cited by OSHA for record-keeping violations, we have never in the entire history of our company received a violation for inaccurate or incomplete injury record keeping.”

Underreporting Problematic

Despite what Cal/OSHA finds, the issue of mislabeling or undercounting workplace injuries has been a problem long before Tesla’s issues came to public attention, former OSHA officials and employment attorneys say.

Companies’ “failure to record and track injuries is systematic of a larger problem—a lack of commitment to worker safety,” David Michaels, who led OSHA under President Barack Obama, told Bloomberg Environment.

Under Michaels, OSHA revisited injury underreporting and intimidation by employers to manipulate injury data. And dozens of studies, both government-sanctioned and private, point to the significant problems that underreporting of workplace injuries and illnesses pose.

Why does it happen? Some companies don’t want to be seen as dangerous employers, managers could get bonuses based on the lack of injuries in a year, or sometimes workers are given bonuses for their lack of accidents—which encourages them not to report their own injuries, Michaels said.

It’s record keeping, however, that could be improved if agency officials routinely interviewed workers as part of OSHA’s record audits, a Government Accountability Office study conducted in October 2009 said.

A representative from Cal/OSHA confirmed that an investigation of Tesla is underway.

“While we do not disclose details of open inspections, Cal/OSHA’s inspections typically include a review of the employer’s Log 300, as well as a review to ensure that serious injuries are reported directly to Cal/OSHA within eight hours as required by law,” Cal/OSHA spokeswoman Erika Monterroza told Bloomberg Environment in an email.

More to Allegations

Some safety attorneys believe that there is far more nuance to the allegations against Tesla than what is publicly known.

Tesla’s hiring of aluminum manufacturer Alcoa’s safety official, Laurie Shelby, before the investigative report was released shows that Tesla is committed to safety, “given Alcoa’s high reputation for OSHA compliance,” said Baruch Fellner, a partner at law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP in Washington.

The most disturbing fact in the Tesla investigation is the allegation that the company added more than 100 injuries to its log after the posted injury log was examined and challenged, said Fellner, who represents large employers.

“If true, that’s a troublesome admission either of benign inaccuracy or a malignant attempt to hide the ball; either way, it reflects a safety and health program with deficiencies,” he said. “I would want to examine very carefully the citations that Cal/OSHA has apparently issued; they may show systemic safety and health problems particularly if they have not been contested.”

Tesla representatives said last year that “a Cal-OSHA investigation into our injury reporting and record keeping was closed without any violations found and without any further action taken. We care deeply about the safety and well-being of our people and strive to do better every day.”

Michaels concluded differently.

“It appears to me—for all of Tesla’s commitment to innovation, they don’t understand operational excellence. They don’t have experience with manufacturing,” said Michaels, now a professor at the school of public health at The George Washington University.

As of Dec. 31, 2017, Tesla had 37,543 full-time employees, according to Bloomberg data.

In addition to its worker safety woes, the company also is facing $4.7 billion in litigation risks from class actions related to autopilot safety concerns consumers allege are associated with Model S and Model X vehicles, according to Bloomberg data.

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