Tesla worker injuries higher than traditional automakers

FREMONT, Calif. (KGO) -- Jobs are so important to Building A Better Bay Area, and in Fremont, one major employer is Tesla. The company has been grappling with how to improve worker safety at the factory; its injury rates have been worse than at traditional automakers.

More than 15,000 people work at the factory in Fremont. Everyone with whom the I-Team spoke was thrilled to be hired at Tesla, but hundreds have been sidelined over the years by a wide range of injuries

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Elon Musk had a mission when he unveiled the Fremont factory nine years ago, to build the most advanced electric cars, at the most advanced auto plant.

Tesla installed some of the biggest robots in the world and promoted them. And when demand soared last year for the more affordable Model 3, Musk announced the cars would be built 100-percent by robots.

Ed Niedermeyer, author of the new book "Ludacris, The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors," tells us, "The whole production system would be moving so fast that a human really couldn't be a part of it, so it would be 100% roboticized."

Niedermeyer tells us the all-robotic line proved to be impractical, just as it had at other automakers.

Elon Musk abandoned the idea and admitted on Twitter, "Yes, excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake. To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated."

Niedermeyer says Tesla workers are now paying a price because the focus has been on robots, not people.

"If you don't put in the planning for a production system, you don't know what the impact is going to be on people. It's a very-- ergonomics is a very tricky field."

Carlos Aranda started at Tesla two years ago. He tells the I-Team, "It was a great job, things were going really well."

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He says as he worked on the car's alignment, the chassis would raise up and he'd have to jump off each time

"We're talking about maybe like about two, two and half feet and then you're doing that ninety to a hundred times a day which kind of gave me my first current condition."

Aranda says he feels like he's walking on broken toes all the time; he's been diagnosed with plantar fasciitis. Also, a ganglion cyst in his wrist and carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands.

Dennis Cruz started at Tesla in 2014, and he tells the I-Team, "I got hurt seat manufacturing, front seat, back, driver's seat for the Model 3."

Cruz says he has been off the job with carpal tunnel in both hands, a ripped bicep tendon, blurred vision from body adhesive in his eyes, lung damage from putting out a fire.

Michael Sanchez worked several positions on the production line since 2012, leaving him with bulging discs in his back, herniated discs in his neck, arm and neck pain, and migraines.

Sanchez tells us, "I'm in pure agonizing pain, I jumped up and my arm was just hanging."

The I-Team has obtained page after page of Tesla's form 300's, the "Log of Work-Related Injuries and Illnesses" the company has filed with OSHA. Employees have suffered a myriad of back, hand and arm strains, bruises, lacerations, punctures, fractures, and burns.

A Forbes analysis from March found that Tesla's fines for safety violations the past five years surpassed ten other major US auto plants combined -- 54 OSHA violations compared to 18, and 236-thousand dollars in fines for Tesla, to just 89-thousand at the other plants.

Worker safety has been one of the driving forces for the move to unionize the Fremont plant.

"We deserve an honest day's wage," Alameda County Supervisor Richard Valle told the UAW rally at Tesla in October 2017. "And we deserve reasons why they discard us like we're nothing, and that's not the tradition of this country."

I-Team Reporter Dan Noyes contacted Tesla for an interview, but the company declined to provide a spokesperson on camera.

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Tesla's Kamran Mumtaz emailed the I-Team that a survey last year found 83-percent of employees "agreed that Tesla cares about their safety and well-being"; and that the company's safety record is improving because of "engagement at all levels, including employee suggestions, leadership walk-throughs, safety team meetings, as well as audits and inspections."

Safety consultant Jim Howe says Tesla may be on the right track with those steps, and that they could take a lesson from a traditional automaker.

At Ford they're doing some very innovative things," says Howe. "They are recognizing the criticality of worker participation. They understand that it's so important to have this open culture where you know people can raise problems and issues."

And that's one of the complaints we've heard from workers: there is a tremendous push to meet production numbers at Tesla, and that supervisors don't want to hear about injuries. But, from what Tesla told us, the company is working to change that perception.

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