“Anywhere else, man, this guy would go to jail.”
Storey County (Nevada) Deputy Mitchell Hammond on Elon Musk, as quoted by Anjeanette Damon, Reno Gazette Journal
(Creative Commons image by Suzy Hazelwood)
In part one of our review of safety at Tesla, we learned how it chose to reduce its reported injury rate by focusing on the “reported” instead of the “rate”. We also saw how Tesla forgot to report numerous serious incidents -- including an amputation -- and dragged its feet on disclosing others, so the statute of limitations on OSHA penalties would kick in.
With feel-good stories the heart wants to say one good turn deserves another. So much greater the disappointment then, when the eyes see that anything Tesla can do wrong, they will do wrong.
In all this, the astonishing thing is that it’s easy being mediocre. It’s statistically inevitable for most of us, in most of what we do. It takes true commitment to become really, really good at something.
But being really, really bad at something takes a lot of commitment too. You need to commit to really not caring. That’s different from “not really caring”. Not really caring keeps you mediocre. Really not caring gets you to worst-in-class. And not just in worker safety; in quality and customer service too.
Which brings us to the table below (via Alan Ohnsman in Forbes).
It didn’t have to be this way. And it shouldn’t be this way. But it is this way.
And it is this way because of Tesla’s Medusa-like effect: stare into the seductive narrative, and your heart turns to stone. (Medusa is sometimes depicted as beautiful-but-deadly, an early iteration of a femme fatale.)
Mortals survived Medusa by averting their eyes. My morals survived Tesla by avoiding the stock. That’s the simplest reason I can see for people like me laughing off Musk’s antics and Tesla’s actions as nonchalantly as high society tolerated Jeffrey Epstein’s “foibles”.
Back to worker safety, the root causes leading to those OSHA violations could’ve been addressed in 2014, or in 2015, or in 2016, or in 2017. In Part One we saw the allegation -- and documentation -- that Tesla was already undercounting / slow-reporting injuries by 2017, if not before. And that Will Evans and Reveal’s investigative journalists in 2018 were able to find not one, not two, not three, not four, but five (5) clinic workers who claimed the in-house clinic’s practices were unsafe and unethical.
I can’t not be skeptical about company-published data for 2019 and 2020.
Borrowing Big Coal’s Playbook
Somewhere along the way -- maybe from the beginning -- Tesla chose the coal baron playbook of, well, we’re going to challenge everything.
Even judge’s warrants.
Mar 2018: two women suffer finger injuries (one an amputation!) on the same shift in Nevada. Tesla settles and promises an outside consultant’s report on the equipment by Feb 2019.
Feb 2019: no report.
Mar 2019: Nevada OSHA hears about an employee who lost consciousness near barrels of adhesive and decides to do a full inspection.
Tesla allows the inspectors on a partial tour. After the inspectors inspected and identified hazards -- i.e. did their job -- Tesla pulled a “Karen” and talked to OSHA management, demanding they keep their inspectors out of the facility. (It’s ridiculous that the pejorative for an angry, obnoxious, entitled white person is a woman instead of a man; I’ll use “Elon” going forward.)
There’s a parallel with this 2010 NPR story about Massey Coal, where the injury rate was higher than the rest of the coal industry, and whose PR organ mischaracterized how many violations workplace safety inspectors found. (Not unlike Tesla gaming the statute of limitations, then high-fiving itself for only receiving one $400 violation in a 2018 California OSHA review, covered in Part One.)
The coal industry vigorously contests health and safety sanctions, like Tesla, and the article ends with a “Circle of Life” flourish, commenting that S&P Equity Research “then advised that Massey Energy is again a good buy for investors”.
May 2019: Tesla refuses entry to OSHA inspectors who had arrived with a judge’s warrant and with Storey County Deputy Mitchell Hammond, source of the “anywhere else, man, he’d go to jail” quote.
Before OSHA and the Storey County District Attorney could escalate the situation, Tesla went all “Elon” and called OSHA’s boss. That is to say, Michael Brown, the Director of Nevada Department of Business and Industry, which oversees OSHA.
Damon reported that Tesla and OSHA higher-ups negotiated the details, over the objections of OSHA’s on-the-ground safety officers.
Late May 2019: Nevada OSHA inspectors get to inspect part of the Nevada factory over a five-day period. They find numerous violations but recommend only one be cited. Hmm.
Oct 2019: a few months after this dust-up, Michael Brown becomes the Executive Director of the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
Did this promotion evolve by accident, or was there “intelligent design”?
Mar 2020: Damon reports that Tesla still hadn’t turned over its Nevada factory injury logs and other safety planning documents from ten months previous. The delay is long enough to conceive, gestate, and birth a baby. (Musk and Grimes’ baby wasn’t born until May 2020, though.)
After Tesla claimed it intended to sign up for the state’s voluntary protection program, to make OHSA expertise available to help improve worker safety, the company had not done so by Feb 2020. Unless things changed -- highly doubtful -- OSHA still hasn’t been able to inspect the full factory; it’s as off-limits as Michael Jackson’s Neverland.
Tesla’s “Astonishingly Excellent” Health Record
Remember Donald Trump’s doctor’s note from 2015 claiming that he was in “astonishingly excellent” health, and that he’d be the “healthiest individual ever elected President”?
You know, the one Donald Trump dictated himself. (To the doctor, that is.)
Let’s suppose, just suppose, that Tesla hired a couple of safety consultants to scope things out in Fremont, the factory where it had exerted an “alarming amount of pressure” on the clinic owner to bring down reported injury rates.
Let’s further suppose the safety consultants neither visited the on-site medical clinic nor conducted a full audit of medical records. Rather, they did a sniff test and got “a good feeling from Tesla”. They did “walkthroughs and limited assessments because [they] didn’t have a lot of time”.
In their about-a-week long visit.
During which they also relied on Tesla’s word that there was no prohibition on calling 911, instead of investigating this for themselves. (The claim was flatly contradicted by former clinic employees.)
Now let’s suppose one of them sent an email to journalists that:
“What they have accomplished is phenomenal … I really think you should be writing a piece describing their improvement from where they were to where they are at now.”
What are the odds Tesla dictated that themselves, a la Trump?
And if I were to crowdfund and hire them, could I get them to say that “what Matthew Klippenstein has accomplished is phenomenal, I really think People should be writing a piece describing him as one of the Sexiest Men Alive”?
A thorough third-party assessment by independent consultants would have set this issue to rest. Tesla opted for a “sniff test” instead.
Addendum: The Cruelty is the Point
CNBC’s Lora Kolodny reported this weekend that during a Model S/X production line shutdown, the second wealthiest man alive asked manufacturing line workers at his company -- which raised $12 billion dollars in calendar 2020 -- to take unpaid time off during the holidays, and if they were up to it, volunteer to help deliver cars.
How easy would it be for Tesla to use their lowest-paid employees’ willingness to volunteer their labour instead of spending time with their families, as a commitment test? Not only could Tesla create pretenses for firing employees whose stock options are about to mature, but they could conveniently put demerits in non-participants’ files for “not being a team player” or “not a cultural fit”.
But perhaps we’re being too cynical. How plausible is that?
When Musk promised employees in March 2020 that they could stay home during Covid if they were worried, employees told Kolodny they:
“...feared taking time off would impact their performance reviews and lead to their being fired later”.
As noted in Part One, ease of abuse equals abuse.
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The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer popularized the phrase “the cruelty is the point” a couple years ago. It applies to Tesla. Consider this passage in light of Tesla’s worker safety record:
Only ((Elon Musk)) and his allies, his supporters, and their anointed are entitled to the rights and protections of the law, and if necessary, immunity from it.
Think of Musk’s broader behaviour; taunting the SEC with a tweet reading “three letter acronym, middle word Elon’s”; tweeting that his $20 million fine was “worth it”; attacking cave rescue leader and hero, spelunker Vern Unsworth; demeaning Ed Niedermeyer’s reporting on Tesla suspension breakage (now the topic of a NHTSA probe) and its unprecedented use of NDAs; harassing and swatting whistleblowers; rifling through journalist Linette Lopez’ Facebook profile; calling shelter-in-place orders fascist, then demanding and suing to reopen his factory mid-pandemic; dissing California as a pretext for shielding himself from taxes by moving to Texas; insulting women workers after firing them; abandoning owners with terrible service at the owners’ expense; “suggesting” unpaid low-level employees volunteer to make vehicle deliveries; going “hardcore” on cost-cutting (the Fremont factory ran out of toilet paper). There’s much more. His public vulgarity is a whole other iceberg, but rides on the same principle of violating laws and norms.
Few of us would do any of these things. None of us would do all of these things. Musk does, because for him and many fans the cruelty is the point.
It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear … It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.
The only question is what fans, EV advocates, climate hawks and bystanders will let it cost them. Will we realize that Musk has preyed on our ends to justify his means? And if we do, will we choose to really not care?