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Hiding Injuries at Tesla: Where The Worker Still Doesn’t Matter.

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Under-recording of workplace injuries and illnesses is bad, and far too common. But at the automaker Tesla, in Fremont, California,  under-recording is more than a paper exercise in deception — at Tesla it means withholding needed medical treatment of injured workers so that their injuries aren’t report on OSHA logs.

We wrote previously about reports that workers are getting hurt at Tesla and that many of those injuries are not being recorded.  Earlier this year, Reveal reporters Will Evans and Alyssa Jeong Perry documented how Tesla put style and speed over safety, undercounted injuries and ignored the concerns of its own safety professionals. CalOSHA has inspected the company a number of times and found recordkeeping violations.  Now Evans shows the many ways that Tesla is keeping injuries off the OSHA logs.

Despite a clear pattern of inaccurate reporting, federal OSHA is unable to cite patterns of under-reporting after Congress repealed OSHA’s “Volks” regulation at the beginning of the Administration. Throughout OSHA’s history, the agency had been able to cite employers who violated OSHA’s requirement to keep accurate records for five years. OSHA had issued a regulation addressing a court ruling against that practice, but Congress used the Congressional Review Act to repeal it. No OSHA can’t cite recordkeeping violations longer than 6 months before a citation is issued, making it impossible to cite patterns of violations like those committed at Tesla.

California has modified these restrictions slightly by allowing the agency to cite employers for recordkeeping violations six months from when Cal/OSHA first learns of the violation, instead of six months from when the violation occurred. But the bill was signed too late for the agency to take action against Tesla.

Background

Under-reporting injuries and illnesses on OSHA logs is nothing new.  Unlike fatality reporting, injury and illness reporting is conducted by employers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimated in 2016, that nearly 3.7 million workers across all industries, including state and local government, had work-related injuries and illnesses that were reported by employers. But due to documented and widespread underreporting of workplace injuries, experts estimate that the true number is closer to  7.4 million to 11.1 million injuries and illnesses a year — two to three times greater than BLS estimates.  Much of the undercounting is the result of employers discouraging workers from reporting injuries and illnesses, either through direct retaliation or through more subtle means such as incentive programs or retaliatory drug testing.  That’s why OSHA’s “electronic recordkeeping regulation,” issued in 2015, forbids employers from retaliating against workers for reporting injuries and illnesses. The Trump administration recently issued a memo weakening the enforcement of that language.

In order to understand Tesla’s strategy, you need to understand how OSHA defines a “recordable injury.” According to OSHA regulations, work-related injuries must be recorded on OSHA injury logs if they require medical treatment beyond first aid, if they result in days away from work or if the worker is assigned job restrictions due to the injury.  Tesla’s practices were designed to avoid anything that triggers recording, according to former medical personnel who worked at Tesla.

To ensure that fewer injuries would be recorded, Tesla hired Access Omnicare, headed by hand surgeon Dr. Basil Besh, to run its factory health center. Access Omnicare promised Tesla it could help reduce the number of recordable injuries and emergency room visits. Reveal obtained a copy of Access’s proposal which stated that  “Access Omnicare’s model, with more accurate diagnoses, reduces “un-necessary use of Emergency Departments and prevents inadvertent over-reporting of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) recordability.”

“Over-reporting?”

How to Under-count at Tesla? Let Me Count the Ways

To under-record, and under-record effectively requires some creativity.

Access Omnicare had a rule that injured employees could not be given work restrictions. According to a former Access physician assistant, Anna Watson.

No matter what type of injuries workers came in with – burns, lacerations, strains and sprains – clinic staff were under instructions to send them back to work full duty, she said. Watson said she even had to send one back to work with what appeared to be a broken ankle.

A medical assistant who formerly worked at the clinic remembered an employee who was sent back to work even though he couldn’t stand on one of his feet. Another employee passed out face down on the assembly line – then went back to work.

“You always put back to full duty, no matter what,” said the medical assistant.

Ambulances were highly risky as well, if your goal is to hide serious injuries.  Tesla forbids staff from calling 911 without permission after workers have been injured –even when fingers have been severed or employees have suffered serious injuries. Instead they put them in a Lyft or Uber and send them to a clinic after which they’re put back on the assembly line with no work modifications, even if they can barely walk. One worker’s back was painfully crushed when a hood fell on him. “I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t sit down. I couldn’t even stand up straight,” Stephon Nelson recalled. But Tesla refused to call 911 or send him to the hospital in an ambulance, putting him in an Uber instead.

Why? To save money? More likely because “911 logs become public records. And first responders, unlike drivers for ride-hailing services, are required to report severe work injuries to California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, the state’s workplace safety agency.”

Other tactics Tesla used were to claim that some injuries and illnesses were not work-related and refuse treatment to temporary employees:

Watson recalled one worker who had passed out on the job and went to the hospital because of her exposure to fumes in the factory. Even though a work-related loss of consciousness is required to be counted, no such injury was recorded on Tesla’s injury logs.

Temp workers hurt on the production line also were often rebuffed by the clinic, said former clinic employees. At one point, there was a blanket policy to turn away temps, they said.

Tracy Lee developed a repetitive stress injury over the summer when a machine broke and she had to lift car parts by hand, she said. Lee said the health center sent her away without evaluating her because she wasn’t a permanent employee.

By law, Tesla is required to record injuries of temp workers who work under its supervision, no matter where they get treatment. But not all of them were.

Beware the Night

Getting hurt during the day is bad enough. But getting hurt at night is especially dangerous because there are no doctors or nurses on duty.

Two medical assistants who used to work there said they often were left on their own – one on duty at a time – and struggled to tend to all the injured. Both had to do things such as take vital signs, which medical assistants aren’t allowed to do without on-site supervision, according to the Medical Board of California. Reveal granted them anonymity because they fear speaking out will hurt their careers. Dr. Basil Besh said no one works alone. Besh is hand surgeon who owns Access Omnicare which

For a severely injured worker lying on the assembly line, it could take 10 to 15 minutes for a medical assistant to arrive and then contact on-call doctors, a medical assistant said. Getting a code for Tesla’s Lyft account was a drawn-out process that could take hours, she said.

The medical assistants said they were alarmed and uncomfortable with the doctors’ orders to use Lyft because they worried some patients could pass out or need help en route. One worker directed to take a Lyft was light-headed and dizzy. Another had his fingers badly broken, contorted and mangled.

Moving Right Along

And despite promises from Tesla CEO Elon Musk to do better, Tesla has not cleaned up its act, according to Watson:

Many more injured workers never were counted, she said.  Tesla’s official injury logs, provided to Reveal by a former employee, show 48 injuries in August. Watson reviewed the list for the three weeks she was there and estimated that more than twice as many injuries should have been counted if Tesla had provided appropriate care and counted accurately.

And despite the fact that there is evidence that Tesla is violating the law, CalOSHA has not responded to the information Watson supplied to them.

Watson called Cal/OSHA officials to insist they investigate her complaint. She told them that she had detailed knowledge of a system that undercounted injuries by failing to treat injured workers. But Cal/OSHA officials told her that it wasn’t the agency’s responsibility, she said. They suggested contacting another agency, such as the medical board or workers’ compensation regulators.

Watson, meanwhile, has moved on to a new job

She said she just wants someone to make sure that Tesla workers get the care they need. “You go to Tesla and you think it’s going to be this innovative, great, wonderful place to be, like this kind of futuristic company,” she said. “And I guess it’s just kind of disappointing that that’s our future, basically, where the worker still doesn’t matter.”

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on November 6, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab wasDeputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).


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Tesla expands worker injury list 1 week after Elon Musk criticizes media for reporting on it

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Tesla has expanded its list of worker injuries following a report published in Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, which flagged under-counting and safety problems at the company’s Fremont, California facility last month.

The move also comes one week after CEO and founder Elon Musk blasted the media for reporting on the discrepancies and threatened to start a Yelp-like site to rate journalists.

“Tesla disputed our reporting showing that it left worker injuries off the books,” Reveal tweeted Tuesday. “Now, it’s begun adding some of the injuries that had been missing.

The original Reveal report, published on April 16, claimed that Tesla officials were under-reporting work-related injuries sustained by employees in order to make the company’s safety numbers appear more favorable to industry critics. The company instead wrote many complaints off as “personal medical issues or minor incidents requiring only first aid,” according to internal company records. In May, pressure on the company doubled after an unfavorable review by Consumer Reports found troubling flaws in the Tesla Model 3’s braking system, the second critical report from the austere publication.

Responding to the criticism last week, Musk went on a Twitter rant, claiming that the negative press was part of “a calculated disinformation campaign.”

“The holier-than-thou hypocrisy of big media companies who lay claim to the truth, but publish only enough to sugarcoat the lie, is why the public no longer respects them,” he tweeted.

A short while later, after several followers accused him of emulating President Trump’s media bullying tactics, he added, “Thought you’d say that. Anytime anyone criticizes the media, the media shrieks ‘You’re just like Trump!’ Why do you think he got elected in the first place? Because no ones believes you any more. You lost your credibility a long time ago.”

Musk then claimed he would “create a site where the public can rate the core truth of any article & track the credibility score over time of each journalist, editor & publication.”

“Thinking of calling it Pravda,” he tweeted, the name borrowed from the state-run newspaper of Soviet Russia. When asked if the site would work like Yelp, where users can rate local businesses and leave reviews, Musk added, “Exactly.”

(As science and tech reporter Mark Harris noted, Musk may be planning to follow through on his tweets: in October 2017, one of Musk’s associates, Jared Birchall, incorporated a “Pravda Corp” in the state of California. After Harris tweeted the incorporation documents, Musk simply replied with a smiling emoji.)

Reveal’s criticisms appear to have some merit, however. As the outlet noted on Tuesday, following Musk’s Twitter rant and the earlier media reports, Tesla officials allegedly quietly revised the company’s books to add more names to the company’s list of worker injuries, including at least “13 injuries from 2017 that had been missing when Tesla certified its legally mandated injury report earlier this year.”

“Alaa Alkhafagi, for example, smashed his face and arm in the paint department last fall. He said he had been asked to perform a task for which he had no training,” reporter Will Evans wrote. “At the time of the injury, Tesla didn’t put Alkhafagi on official injury logs, even though the accident caused him to miss work. …By late April, Tesla had added him to the 2017 logs, dating his injury Oct. 1 and noting that he missed three days of work because of it.”

Evans flagged that the company “has yet to record all of the 2017 injuries it should have by law…[and] might not face a penalty for it.”

Tesla has claimed it was simply complying with state laws in adding the new cases to its list. “[W]e’ve added only a small fraction…to our 2017 logs, amounting to less than 2 percent of our 2017 injuries,” the company said in a statement to Reveal. “This is a normal part of ensuring our records are accurate. In fact, this is precisely what OSHA regulations require that companies do.”

Musk has not yet personally responded to the latest Reveal report on Twitter.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on May 29, 2018. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Melanie Schmitz is an editor at ThinkProgress. She formerly worked at Bustle and Romper.

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