Ease-of-abuse equals abuse

Part one in an analysis of Tesla's Swiss cheese safety statistics.

Tesla’s attitude towards workplace injuries is “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

Strong words. But we do know of an unreported amputation (Lane Dhillon, male, fingertip, Nevada factory, 2017). 

We don’t know if this was the same equipment or process that severely injured two female workers -- including a second fingertip amputation -- hours apart in 2018. These appear to have gone into the books. Tesla was levied a $7,000 fine. That was rescinded when the company promised to submit an outside consultant’s safety evaluation. The deadline passed. Tesla didn’t file.

Sticking to the fingertip amputations (!) we have a third case in the media record (male, fingertip, Fremont factory). Whether or not this went into the books, there’s a chilling detail in Reveal’s reporting: the victim was transported to hospital not by ambulance or by Lyft, but by the factory supervisor who drove them to the hospital in their personal vehicle -- as they did with other injured workers.

That’s unforgivably suspicious. Of all the ways to get an injured employee to the hospital, Tesla ruled out third-party transport (ambulances, Lyft) and then had the employee get a ride from the factory supervisor: someone who had the power to fire them -- or raise their employee ratings. Even if you thought Tesla and its factory management were Robespierrean Incorruptibles, it’s textbook “isolation to facilitate abuse”.

Maybe that workplace injury was actually a personal injury, so it wouldn’t count on Tesla’s books? Maybe there are some favours the company could do, definitely not a hush-money quid pro quo, but to, ah, recognize all the hard work the injured employee had put in? 

Most of us know the software expression “ease-of-use equals use”. 

Well, “ease-of-abuse equals abuse” too. 

For days at a time the animals had nothing to eat but chaff and mangels. Starvation seemed to stare them in the face.

It was vitally necessary to conceal this fact from the outside world…  Napoleon ordered the almost empty bins in the store-shed to be filled nearly to the brim with sand, which was then covered up with what remained of the grain and meal. On some suitable pretext Whymper [a human] was led through the store-shed and allowed to catch a glimpse of the bins. He was deceived, and continued to report to the outside world that there was no food shortage on Animal Farm. 

(From “Animal Farm” by George Orwell)

Cutting the Corner on Safety

Reveal, a project of the Center for Investigative Journalism, recently published an investigation of Amazon’s record of underreporting injury rates. Not among its white-collar workers, for whom everything north of a paper cut probably merits recording, but among its warehouse workers.

Reveal has to date filed twelve - that’s 12 - stories on Tesla doing the same. Shortly after one of them, “someone” called California child services claiming the whistleblower who spoke with Reveal posed a danger to their children, and that the kids would be safer in state custody. Wonder if it was the same “someone” who tried to have Martin Trip swatted.

It would be nice to believe Tesla has made great progress reducing its injury rates, as it has taken to trumpeting, but the stats are as believable as Lysenkoist production reports from the Soviet Union.

Adapting a more-detailed timeline from this Reveal article:

June 2017: a Tesla Director of Environment, Health, Safety and Sustainability is fired. In a subsequent lawsuit he claims the company misclassified work injuries to avoid reporting them as required by law.

Feb 04 2018: Buzzfeed reports on injuries at Tesla, spotlighting the company’s reckless indifference of not rotating manufacturing workers between stations over the course of a day. Who pioneered the rotation of workers between stations during the day? Quite possibly Toyota. Who does Musk hold an eternal grudge against? Why, Toyota.  

Feb 04 2018: Tesla reports that its injury rate is at industry average during the time period in which the former Director of EHSS claimed Tesla avoided reporting work injuries. 🤔

Presumably the Tesla blog post was prepared after Buzzfeed asked them to comment on its planned story. Not mentioned: serious injury rates were 30% above industry average. Serious injury rates literally weren’t important enough to warrant a mention, and they came in high even after an undercounting fudge factor! 

April 16 2018: Reveal catches Tesla yellow-handed underreporting safety data. Which corroborates the Director of EHSS’s claims, and confirms that the stat about being at industry average undercounts the actual injury rate at Tesla. 

May 2018: Tesla adds 13 injuries to its 2017 injuries list. Reveal has receipts to show the list is still incomplete. The injuries Tesla “innocently” missed reporting include lacerations causing a 100 missed days of work and a dislocated knee from which the employee had not returned, as of May 2018. Which means the knee injury had caused a minimum of 17 weeks of missed work. 

A prosecutor might get the impression that the injuries Tesla “innocently” forgot to report were the most serious ones. A former Cal/OSHA officer suggests Tesla’s disclosures are consistent with a pattern of minimizing injuries, and only acknowledging others when under pressure.

June 2018: Access Omnicare begins managing the Fremont health center, explaining how it can reduce Tesla’s injury rate. Goodheart’s Law (technically Strathern’s corollary) absolutely applies: when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure

August 2018: Cal/OSHA fines Tesla $400. It is hamstrung by a statute of limitations that it can’t cite employers for unreported incidents which happened more than six months previous. So an unethical employer could run out the clock to escape punishment by, say, reporting 13 calendar-2017 injuries in May 2018, five months into the new year. (Ease of abuse equals abuse.) Tesla calls this a vindication -- as do, one imagines, its unsuspecting fans.

Nov 2018: Reveal reports the concerns of a whistleblower from Access Omnicare that theirs is -- I’ll use Reveal’s titular phrasing -- a medical clinic designed to ignore injured workers. What would this accomplish? It would artificially depress Tesla’s reportable injury rates, allowing Tesla to announce great progress on safety when no such objective improvements occurred. Kind of like how AutoPilot / “Full Self Driving” hallucinates objects that aren’t there.

Not one, not two, not three, not four, but five (5) former clinic employees said its practices were unsafe and unethical. Not exactly what one would expect from an ESG darling company; nor do I recall shareholder resolutions along these lines. 

Again for emphasis: Reveal found *five* former clinic employees who condemned Tesla’s onsite medical clinic as unsafe and unethical. A necessarily anonymous high-ranking former Access Omnicare employee explained that Tesla exerted an “alarming amount of pressure” (Reveal’s words) on the clinic owner, who then bullied and pressured employees not to report injuries. 

This included one whistleblower’s claim that a Tesla lawyer and company safety official told staff to stop prescribing exercises to workers -- even stretches! -- so the injuries that caused the exercise prescriptions wouldn’t have to be counted.

In the three weeks that she was present, the whistleblower estimated that there should have been more than twice as many injuries should have been reported. Shortly after turning whistleblower, an anonymous caller suggested California child services pay them a visit. A remarkable coincidence.

Has safety improved at Tesla since 2018? It could hardly have gotten worse, the above are coal baron tactics. Are Tesla’s published statistics credible? Not with the company’s documented track record — and that’s just the small subset of undercounted incidents we know about.

All Their Sons

If Tesla put half as much effort into manufacturing vehicles as it put into manufacturing safety statistics, it’d be a respected automaker. It chooses not to, and fans let the company get away with it. Ease-of-abuse equals abuse.

Many years and even more pounds ago, I wondered how 19th-century Europeans could have been so idealistic, jingoistic and willingly blind to what carving-up Africa actually involved. Thanks to Tesla I now know: the idealism, jingoism, and willing blindness are all here. The conceit-leavening Great Mission has simply shifted from “civilizing Africa” to “saving the world”. Time is a flat circle.

But while King of Belgium satisfied himself with the Congo Free State, Elon Musk has tried to make the world his playpen; to his Leopold II, we’re no more than the Congolese: bendable, offendable, expendable.

The Heart of Darkness that shifts public opinion has yet to be written. Until it is, Tesla won’t have a safety culture but a safety cover-up culture.

To forgive, forget or forfend attention from Tesla’s years-long, multiply-attested, receipts-in-hand commitment to faking worker safety stats -- at two factories! -- is to have never watched Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. (In the story, Joe, the officially exonerated but very, very guilty co-owner of a factory which made defective fighter plane parts causing 21 pilot deaths, realizes he should’ve acted as if the pilots in the planes destined to get those defective parts were “all my sons”.)

The broader tragedy is that until fans demand better of Tesla, they are complicit in their silence. The closer tragedy is that Tesla’s tactics will inspire more messianic imitators, until one day the workers unprotected and injured, amputations unreported, will be their sons.

Ease-of-abuse equals abuse.

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