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Elon Musk Has Lots To Say About Workers At Tesla–Which Continues To Lead U.S. Carmakers In Safety Violations

Elon Musk, the world’s wealthiest person, has had plenty to say in the past few days about employees at Tesla, his electric-vehicle company. He’s expressed hostility to remote work, demanded that executives spend at least 40 hours a week at the office and floated the idea of firing 10% of Tesla’s workforce because he has a “super bad feeling” about the direction of the economy.

At the same time, Tesla continues to lead all carmakers in workplace safety violations, racking up more infractions and fines in the past three years than all other automakers in the U.S. combined.

Since March 1, 2019, when Forbes reported that Musk’s company had been slapped with more violations and fines under Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules than any other auto company in the U.S., Tesla has been cited 29 more times for infractions at its U.S. facilities, including 22 at manufacturing operations in California and Nevada. The Austin, Texas-based company’s infractions resulted in $393,000 in federal fines.

By comparison, 14 other automakers building cars and trucks in the U.S., including General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Stellantis, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Kia, Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, have a combined 21 safety violations and fines totaling $148,488, according to the OSHA database.

“His goal seems to be to churn out as many cars as he possibly can, the condition of the employees be damned,” says Sam Abuelsamid, an auto industry analyst for Guidehouse, senior contributor to Forbes and former Ford engineer. Musk has talked about creating fully automated factories and touts Tesla’s development of the Optimus humanoid robot, but he’s got to rely on human labor for the foreseeable future, Abuelsamid says. “There are limits to what you can do with automation, so he focuses on just pushing the employees as hard as he possibly can.”

Love Musk or hate him, the man is a hard worker. He runs Tesla, SpaceX, the Boring Co. and, maybe someday, Twitter, in addition to being the father of seven children ranging in age from an infant to teenagers. His belief in putting in the hours even led him to camp out at Tesla’s Fremont, California, factory in 2017 and early 2018 during its Model 3 “production hell” period to help the carmaker rapidly scale up electric-vehicle production.

Auto plants, like any type of heavy manufacturing facility, can be dangerous workplaces, with heavy metal components, forklifts whizzing around, welding equipment and repetitive tasks that strain workers’ wrists, knees and backs. Tesla, like other auto manufacturers, has tried to maximize employee safety with more comprehensive training programs that, for example, encourage stretching to help reduce strain, and brought in athletic trainers and massage tables for assembly workers. At the same time, Musk continues to push ever more aggressive growth goals, aiming to boost Tesla sales to 20 million units by 2030, up from just under 1 million in 2021.

The company, which eliminated its corporate communications team in 2020, didn’t respond to a request for comment. It has also contested all of the violations found by OSHA, according to the database.

“Tesla is sort of pretty far out there in terms of work ethic anywhere in the world,” Musk said at the All In Summit in Miami last month. “The Tesla work ethic in the U.S., I think, is substantially greater than any other car company or, or any large manufacturing company that I’m aware of.”

“The Tesla work ethic in the U.S., I think, is substantially greater than any other car company or, or any large manufacturing company that I’m aware of.” 

Elon Musk, All In Summit

In his email to employees about remote work, Musk reminded them that everyone at the company was required to be in the office for 40 hours a week at a minimum. “The more senior you are, the more visible must be your presence. That is why I lived in the factory so much — so that those on the line could see me working alongside them. If I had not done that, Tesla would long ago have gone bankrupt.”

This prompted Gianpiero Petriglieri, a professor at INSEAD’s business school, to call Musk “the poster boy of the culture of overwork.”

Other tech CEOs also don’t share Musk’s disdain for remote work for non-production employees, and his advocacy of long hours. “News from @elonmusk & @tesla today feels like something out of the 1950s: ‘Everyone at Tesla is required to spend a minimum of 40 hours in the office per week,’” Atlassian cofounder and CEO Scott Farquhar tweeted, adding that his company takes a different approach. “We’re setting our sights on growing Atlassian to 25K employees by FY26. Any Tesla employees interested?”

Separate from its OSHA issues, Tesla is being sued by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing for alleged racism and harassment toward Black employees at the Fremont plant. The company is also contending with suits brought by several women claiming they experienced sexual harassment while working at Fremont.

After reports of plans to reduce Tesla headcount, Musk tweeted that Tesla’s total headcount would increase, no doubt owing to the company’s two new plants, but that salaried positions would be flat.

Tesla opened new plants this year near Berlin and in Austin to accelerate Musk’s global ambitions. He’s also touted Tesla’s expanding operations in China and the hard work of employees at its Shanghai Gigafactory.

“Tesla does have a strong work ethic in the U.S., but to be totally frank that work ethic is exceeded, on balance, by the Tesla China team,” Musk said at the All In Summit. “That is, I think, objectively true. That’s not to say there aren’t hardworking people at Tesla U.S. There certainly are. But I’d say on average the work ethic in China is higher. I’m just telling it like it is.”

To keep production running in Shanghai last month in the middle of a strict lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19, Tesla was allowed to restart its assembly line by essentially having workers do what Musk himself once did at Fremont: live at the plant for several days, without leaving. It’s unclear whether Tesla required employees to work under those conditions to keep their jobs or if the effort was entirely voluntary.