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"Production Hell"

By Doug Parker, Executive Director


Production hell. That was Elon Musk’s recent warning to workers when he debuted the Tesla Model 3, the newest and most affordable of Tesla’s line of vehicles. His message was reported and repeated across the major business media outlets. What didn’t get any press attention from that evening’s announcement was Mr. Musk’s assertion that the Tesla Model 3 will be the safest car in the world. 

Safest for whom? Worksafe’s recent report on Tesla injury data pointed out that serious injuries at Tesla have occurred at twice the average rate of other auto plants. These are injuries serious enough that a worker is too hurt to perform their job duties, at least temporarily. What we didn’t point out was the fact that Tesla’s serious injury rate was higher than any industry that the Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks. 

Mr. Musk’s use of the term “production hell” is not new. He also referred to the first half of 2016 as “production hell.” If the injury rates from that period are any indicator, he’s right – it was a production hell for Tesla workers. Tesla’s 2016 injury record was the equivalent of 8.1 serious injuries per 100 workers. 

A German reporter interviewed me about Tesla this week. Visibly perplexed, he asked me again and again, “why don’t they form a union?” I explained the various institutional and legal barriers that limit the formation of unions even when workers want representation, and told him that workers were trying to unionize. He wasn’t very satisfied with my response. To someone from a country where the law requires companies to put workers on their boards, the connection between worker power and safety was self-evident.