Tesla safety boss tries to calm factory workers, some are concerned about lax coronavirus precautions

Tesla’s safety leader Laurie Shelby sent an e-mail to employees who work at its Fremont, California, vehicle assembly plant on Thursday to assuage their concerns about new infections among employees. However, some employees say that despite Shelby’s email, they remain worried about infections and lax safety precautions in Fremont.

In the internal communication, which was previously reported by The San Francisco Chronicle, Shelby wrote: 

“Since we restarted operations, we have had zero COVID-19 workplace transmissions. COVID-19 exposure has occurred outside the workplace primarily through family members or housemates, and in most instances, the employee followed safety protocol, informed their manager and stayed home or went to get tested.”

The email did not explain how Tesla arrived at these conclusions, or who may have conducted testing and contact tracing to determine when and where Tesla employees were infected. Tesla and Shelby did not immediately return requests for comment.

Shelby’s email comes days after the Washington Post reported that employees at the company’s seat manufacturing facility, a couple of miles away from the main car factory, had tested positive for the virus, citing anonymous sources. The report did not specify where or how these workers contracted the coronavirus.

However, some employees say that they’re concerned given current conditions in the plant. 

Three production employees there told CNBC on Thursday and Friday that it’s impossible to do their work building cars while complying with the safety rules that the Alameda County Public Health Department said Tesla must implement in order to remain open. These people asked to remain unnamed because they are not authorized to discuss workplace conditions.

Specifically, these employees said, they cannot wear a face covering during their entire shift, thoroughly clean shared tools and equipment between shifts, and keep social distance between coworkers during work, or even during breaks.

Shifts were previously on a staggered schedule to help employees avoid crowding while entering and exiting the facility, but they are not staggered any more, these employees noted. Workers’ temperatures used to be taken personally as they entered the facility, but thermal cameras now scan them as they enter.

Assembling cars at Tesla requires working physically close together, often in enclosed spaces, to complete a task over and over again in less than a minute or two. The work is sweat-inducing.

One person said most employees working on the indoor general assembly line, known as GA3, do not cover their mouths and noses throughout their shifts. It’s too hard to breathe with a mask on, they said, even though the company makes plenty of the surgical masks available.

Because it’s a fireable offense to work without a face covering, many keep their surgical masks hanging under their chins and pull them up if a supervisor walks by, employees said, but even supervisors have been lax about the rules in some cases.

Employees noted that many colleagues have been coughing, sneezing and wheezing. 

A spokesperson for the Fremont Police told CNBC they have not inspected the factory facilities since May 13.

The Alameda County Public Health Department has declined to provide site-specific, anonymized data that would reveal whether Tesla managed to keep infections at bay, or if there had been an outbreak at the Fremont factory since it reopened in defiance of local health orders, with full shifts producing cars the weekend of May 9th.

“We are not disclosing information about number of cases at specific employer settings,” a spokesperson for the Health Deapartment said. “This would be protected health information under HIPAA and we would not disclose it for any of the cases we know about, regardless of their employer.”

By contrast, site-specific, anonymized data about senior living businesses, prisons, and meat processing plants have been available across the US.

The stakes are high for the county and Tesla both.

Any outbreak of Covid-19 at Tesla could force Elon Musk’s electric vehicle maker to once again suspend operations, or cancel shifts early for deep cleaning at least in Fremont. He has already sued, and withdrawn a suit, against the county for Covid-19 restrictions.

Infections that prove harmful or fatal to employees could also leave Tesla subject to OSHA or police inspections and fines, or leave Tesla and the county facing lawsuits. 

Tesla shares closed down 3.86% on Friday after analysts at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley downgraded the stock.

Here is what Laurie Shelby, vice president of environment, health and safety wrote to Tesla Fremont employees on June 11th (e-mail transcribed by CNBC): 

Hi everyone,

Since we restarted operations, we have had zero COVID-19 workplace transmissions. COVID-19 exposure has occurred outside the workplace primarily through family members or housemates, and in most instances, the employee followed safety protocol, informed their manager and stayed home or went to get tested.

If there is any potential or confirmed COVID case at Tesla, regardless of where transmission took place, our protocol is to interview the individual, investigate their whereabouts and speak with their managers to determine who had contact with the individual at work. We speak with all individuals who had direct and extended contact, and quarantine those individuals to watch for symptoms.

We have also implemented additional cleaning measures in our facilities as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other health organizations.

To minimize exposure, please stay home if you’re sick, wash your hands, wear your PPE properly and maintain distance from others where possible. Continue to do your daily health check, and reach out to me or the EHS team at [Ed. E-mail redacted] if you have any questions or would like additional information or training. Tesla also has COVID-paid sick leave so you don’t have to choose between your health and finances. Contact your HR partner to learn more.

We want to hear from you so we can continue to use your feedback to improve processes and ensure effectiveness. Please use this survey or the survey QR code in newsletters and on the TV screens.

Thank you,


WATCH: Tesla shares tumble after two analyst downgrades.

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