News of an Employee's Death at a Tesla Facility Renews Spotlight on History of Safety Concerns

Photo: Rich Pedroncelli (AP)

Tesla confirmed Tuesday that the body of one of its employees was found at the company’s Gigfactory last week and police are currently investigating the incident, Business Insider reported.

The body of Michael Johnston, 61, was found on the Nevada factory’s third floor on July 22, the Storey County Police Department told the site. (A Telsa spokesperson told Gizmodo that Johnston was being treated by medical personnel and later died.) While an investigation is still ongoing, authorities say the cause of Johnston’s death seems to have been related to a medical issue. Tesla’s internal investigation failed to find evidence of nearby workplace hazards that could have been involved, company representatives told Business Insider along with the following statement:

We have been deeply saddened by this incident, and our thoughts continue to be with our employee’s family. While we are still awaiting the autopsy report, we have initiated an investigation with law enforcement agencies and have no reason to believe that the incident was caused by anything related to this employee’s work.

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Even with early reports pointing to a likely medical cause, news of a death in one of Tesla’s factories is bound to raise concern given the company’s history of treating its employees like crap. And that’s not just my opinion: Tesla made the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health’s 2018 list of the most dangerous workplaces in America, which analyzed data from the previous year. (A Teslas spokesperson pointed out to Gizmodo that it did not appear on National COSH’s 2019 “Dirty Dozen” list.)

Between 2014 and 2018, California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration launched 24 investigations and levied fines for 54 violations on a single Tesla facility, according to Forbes. When employees there attempted to unionize in 2017, one told Gizmodo they worked in “borderline slave conditions” there, regularly enduring long hours manning equipment so poorly designed it often caused injuries. Piling on these complains, a 2018 investigation by Reveal News found evidence that Tesla has a history of flubbing its worker injury rates, failing to properly report cases to make itself look better.

A Tesla spokesperson told Gizmodo that the company has disputed the claims in these reports.

The company reported that its injury rate fell by 25 percent in 2017 and further declined in 2018 without specifying by what exact amount. In a Forbes interview earlier this year, Tesla safety chief Laurie Shelby had this to say about the company’s safety improvements:

“We’re not perfect. We make mistakes. We’re human. But our goal is to learn and to move fast.”

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Tesla also reportedly makes it difficult for employees to even complain about their experiences on the job. The company drew criticism earlier this year when it blocked Tesla employees from voicing their complaints on an anonymous social network for tech workers.

Update 2:10 p.m. ET, July 31: Added comment from Tesla.

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About the author

Alyse Stanley

Nights and weekend reporter, Gizmodo.