Tesla got slammed with almost $30,000 in fines after California regulators found its production tent riddled with safety hazards

Tesla's GA4 assembly line.

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Tesla’s GA4 assembly line.
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Stephen Lam/Reuters

  • California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health inspected GA4, an assembly line Tesla constructed in an open-air structure outside its main vehicle factory, and issued penalties for six violations of California’s labor regulations.
  • The citations resulted in fines that total $29,365.
  • Thomas Armstrong, a professor at the University of Michigan, told Business Insider that the violations are not surprising due to the speed with which Tesla built GA4, but he said the violations do not necessarily indicate that the facility is unsafe.
  • “The OSHA inspection did not result from any incident or injury and occurred during the construction phase of the project. Tesla will challenge OSHA’s findings regarding the safety conditions that were present at the time of GA4 construction,” Laurie Shelby, Tesla’s vice president of environmental, health, and safety, said in a statement to Business Insider.

Penalties from California regulators are raising new questions about workplace safety at Tesla’s vehicle production facilities in Fremont.

California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal-OSHA) inspected GA4, an assembly line Tesla constructed in an open-air structure outside its main factory in less than a month, between June 21 and December 18 (the agency did not specify the number of times it visited the facility) and issued penalties for six violations of California’s labor regulations. The citations resulted in fines that total $29,365.

According to Cal-OSHA, Tesla failed to do the following:

  • Obtain a permit prior to building GA4
  • Inspect GA4 for potential safety hazards
  • Cover or guard an opening in the floor of GA4 that was 22 inches wide, 14 inches long, and 8-inches deep
  • Train enough employees to help evacuate workers from the facility in the event of an emergency
  • Properly train employees to prevent and respond to heat illness
  • Protect workers from exposed metal rods and rebar that posed a “hazard of impalement”

Tesla appealed the citations, saying for each that it did not violate the specified regulation and that the corresponding penalty was unreasonable.

“Nothing is more important to me or to Tesla than the health and well-being of our employees,” Laurie Shelby, Tesla’s vice president of environmental, health, and safety, said in a statement to Business Insider. “My EHS team and operational leaders have been intently focused on GA4 over the past six months, implementing safety protocols throughout the new line that not only keep Tesla in compliance with existing standards but also reduce risks to associates. The OSHA inspection did not result from any incident or injury and occurred during the construction phase of the project. Tesla will challenge OSHA’s findings regarding the safety conditions that were present at the time of GA4 construction,”

Read more: Ex-Tesla employees describe the abrupt way they were laid off and say questions linger

Thomas Armstrong, a professor at the University of Michigan who has worked with auto companies to make their manufacturing processes more ergonomically friendly, told Business Insider that the violations are not surprising due to the speed with which Tesla built GA4, but he said the violations do not necessarily indicate that the facility is unsafe, since they largely refer to failures to take preventive measures, rather than worker injuries.

“It certainly is not an endorsement for their safety culture, but, again, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t operating safely,” he said.

The kinds of violations Tesla was cited for are common in the auto industry, and the fine Tesla received amounts to “a slap on the wrist,” Armstrong said.

Have a Tesla news tip? Contact this reporter at mmatousek@businessinsider.com.

Questions about worker safety

Injury statistics and reports from media outlets have raised questions about worker safety at Tesla’s factories, though concerns about workplace safety are not unique to Tesla in the auto industry.

A 2017 report from the worker advocacy group Worksafe said the injury rate at Tesla’s Fremont factory was 31% higher than the industry average in 2015 and 2016, but Tesla said in 2018 that it had made safety improvements that led its recordable injury rate to fall by nearly 25% in 2017. The automaker said its 2017 recordable injury rate was “equivalent” to the industry average.

Worksafe has not released an analysis of Tesla’s 2017 or 2018 injury rates, but Tesla received more citations from OSHA related to vehicle manufacturing than Ford, General Motors, or Fiat Chrysler from 2017 through the end of 2018. Tesla received 21 citations during that period, while Ford received 15, General Motors received three, and Fiat Chrysler received one. Ford was fined the most during that period, $102,554, while Tesla was fined $63,870, General Motors was fined $14,122, and Fiat Chrysler was fined $7,967.

While OSHA’s online database does not disclose the nature of each violation, reports from Reveal published in 2018 claimed that Tesla misreported workplace injuries, avoided using safety markings for aesthetic reasons, and failed to give injured employees proper medical care. The first report was published before Tesla built GA4, and the second made no specific mention of the facility.

Tesla has denied that it has misreported workplace injuries and failed to use safety markings for aesthetic reasons. The automaker did not respond to requests for comment on the allegation that it failed to give injured employees proper medical treatment.

An unconventional decision

The decision to build an open-air structure to supplement vehicle production in less than a month was unconventional. It was motivated by a desire to hit production goals for the Model 3 sedan, which had been subject to significant production delays in the prior year.

Michael Ramsey, an automotive analyst at Gartner, told Business Insider at the time that the move had no precedent in the auto industry.

“It’s extremely unusual, at a minimum,” he said. “I’ve never heard of anyone ever doing this before on a grand scale.”

But Tesla CEO Elon Musk praised GA4 on multiple occasions, saying he preferred it to the main factory and highlighting how it increased the automaker’s production output by 50%.

“It’s actually way better than the factory building. More comfortable & a great view of the mountains,” Musk said in June.