For more than two months last year, Tesla barred Nevada workplace safety officers from conducting a comprehensive inspection of the manufacturing operations at the Gigafactory outside of Reno, even denying entry when inspectors showed up with a sheriff’s deputy and a warrant signed by a judge.
The standoff began in March when inspectors with Nevada’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration tried to follow up on an investigation into equipment that had severely injured two women, one of whom had the tip of her finger sliced off.
After two months of fending off inspectors, Tesla resorted to pulling political strings to bring an end to the standoff, successfully thwarting a complete inspection of the factory.
One day after rejecting inspectors with a warrant, Tesla called one of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s cabinet members and relied on Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford to broker a meeting to negotiate how much access inspectors should have to the massive factory outside of Reno.
The resulting agreement reached by the Sisolak administration – which limited where inspectors could go in the factory, which company documents they could review and who they could talk to –flouted the advice of those charged with ensuring the safety of Nevada’s workers.
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The agreement was not in the best interest of the safety of more than 7,000 workers inside the factory, according to Nevada OSHA’s chief administrative officer, Jess Lankford.
“That’s a great question,” Lankford said to the Reno Gazette Journal when asked whether the outcome of the May meeting was enough to protect workers at the Gigafactory. “I don’t believe we’ve had a good chance to look at conditions employees are working under (at the Gigafactory). My personal feeling is more work needs to be done to fully understand the complexity of the program and whether employees are effectively protected from the hazards associated with it.”
Tesla’s communication team completely ignored multiple requests for comment from the Reno Gazette Journal.
The standoff came to light after multiple public records requests were submitted by the Reno Gazette Journal to Nevada OSHA and the Storey County Sheriff’s Office.
The Reno Gazette Journal, in partnership with The City Podcast, investigated working conditions at the Gigafactory in 2018, finding the factory, which was granted more than $1.3 billion in tax incentives, generated more than 90 visits by OSHA inspectors during its first three years of operation, far more than any other factory in the region.
The Gigafactory also generates a flood of 911 calls. In 2018, someone called 911 from Tesla more than once a day on average.
Crushed fingers, missed deadlines trigger OSHA standoff
The incident that ultimately triggered the standoff occurred nearly two years ago. Hours apart on a single night in March 2018, two women had their fingers crushed in a machine used to assemble the battery packs that power the Tesla Model 3.
According to OSHA documents, Tesla was initially issued a $7,000 fine for the incident. The fine was rescinded after Tesla entered into a settlement agreement in which the company consented to hire an outside consultant to evaluate the safety of the custom equipment it was using.
The February 2019 deadline for submitting that consultant’s report came and went with no response from Tesla.
In March 2019, OSHA inspectors prepared to go back to the factory for a follow-up inspection. But around the same time, another complaint came into the OSHA office.
A worker had passed out and fell on the factory’s concrete floor. Barrels of adhesive were nearby when he lost consciousness, according to OSHA inspection reports.
At that point, Lankford decided it was time for a comprehensive inspection of Tesla’s manufacturing floor, according to inspection reports.
Under state and federal rules, workplace safety inspectors can elevate the investigation of a single complaint to an inspection of the entire worksite under certain conditions. In this case, the comprehensive inspection was justified by the industry’s higher-than-average injury rate and the number of complaints coming in from the Gigafactory itself, Lankford said.
“A partial inspection may look just at one thing,” Lankford said. “A comprehensive inspection will rise to the level of looking at all locations where employees might work. It’s a more thorough wall-to-wall general inspection.”
But Tesla management objected to a wall-to-wall inspection.
According to OSHA documents, Tesla initially allowed inspectors into the building for a “tour” and provided OSHA confirmation that a consultant had reviewed the device that had injured the two workers.
But when inspectors observed multiple hazards during their walk-around, including equipment that did not have proper guards and a damaged forklift sling, Tesla refused to let inspectors interview employees.
During a telephone conference the next day, and in a series of emails, Tesla told OSHA managers to keep inspectors away from the factory. Tesla was denying entry for a comprehensive inspection.
“Until we resolve the legal justification for proceeding with a comprehensive inspection with your counsel, we respectfully request that your office not send any inspectors regarding either construction or manufacturing inspection from this week,” Tesla’s lawyer Yesenia Villasenor wrote in an email to OSHA on March 20.
Over the next couple of weeks, inspectors tried returning to the site. But Tesla would only allow access to certain parts of the factory and refused to allow them to review documents such as injury logs and safety programs, according to inspection reports.
Meanwhile, even more complaints were coming in about the Gigafactory, including reports of brown drinking water, a suspected silica blowout that could be dangerous for workers’ lungs, a security guard who was hit by a Tesla employee in the parking lot and the use of new glue that workers suspected was causing fatigue and other health issues.
Tesla lawyers said OSHA could come to investigate the individual complaints, granting very limited access to inspectors. But they continued to deny entry for a comprehensive inspection and refused to allow OSHA inspectors to interview employees, documents show.
By May, OSHA inspectors had had enough.
Tesla denies entry despite full-inspection search warrant
Inspectors pleaded their case to Storey County District Judge Todd Russell, asking him for an administrative warrant to compel Tesla to grant them access for a full inspection of the Gigafactory.
OSHA inspectors were “repeatedly obstructed from inspecting certain areas, interviewing employees, or requesting documents,” the agency wrote in its court filing.
In denying entry to OSHA, Tesla “put its employees at risk,” the agency wrote.
Russell agreed with OSHA’s argument and signed a search warrant.
On May 20, OSHA safety supervisor Alberto Garcia traveled to the Gigafactory with the warrant in hand. He called Storey County Sheriff’s Office for help executing the warrant.
Storey County Deputy Mitchell Hammond arrived to assist, recording the entire 42-minute interaction on his body camera. The Reno Gazette Journal obtained the footage through a public records request.
According to the footage, OSHA safety inspectors were never allowed beyond the guard shack, which is stationed about a mile from the factory itself.
Tesla sent a safety officer, Rob Paulsen, to meet with the men, but on the advice of Tesla’s lawyer left them standing outside in the cold and blustery weather while Tesla reviewed the warrant.
Hammond, unsure what to do if the inspectors denied the warrant, called his supervisor for advice. Typically, denying a warrant is a contempt of court violation.
“Anywhere else, man, this guy would go to jail,” Hammond said.
For several minutes, Garcia and Paulsen debated the warrant. Paulsen appeared to ask about the justification for the warrant. Garcia said it was up to them how to proceed.
“That’s entirely up to you,” Garcia said. “That’s the reason we have a police officer right here.”
On the phone with his supervisor, Hammond asks whether he should arrest Paulsen: “That means the guy that’s standing here gets taken away? He’s representing Tesla.”
In the end, Tesla officially denied entry and Storey County District Attorney Anne Langer decided no one would go to jail. Instead, OSHA would have to go back to Judge Russell to determine whether contempt of court charges would be warranted.
But OSHA didn’t get the chance to go back to the judge to compel entry.
Tesla pulls political strings for an unprecedented meeting
Before Lankford, Nevada OSHA’s chief administrative officer, could go back to court, Tesla called Michael Brown, director of the Nevada Department of Business and Industry, which oversees Nevada OSHA.
“They felt that the comprehensive inspection was overreaching and when they saw we were going through the legal process, they reached out to the director,” said Ray Fierro, administrator of the Nevada Division of Industrial Relations. “Michael made a decision to try to work with Tesla and set up a meeting at the Attorney General’s office so we could all discuss the matter.”
This kind of meeting was unprecedented, Fierro said.
“I’m unaware of this type of meeting ever happening with any business,” Fierro said. “This was a unique situation we were in. We are there with a warrant and they are saying no. I can only speculate somebody realized the severity of it and they reached out to the director.”
The meeting occurred the next day, May 21. Those in attendance included lawyers for Tesla, lawyers for OSHA, Brown and Fierro. No on-the-ground safety officers, including Lankford, attended the meeting.
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Brown, who is now the director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, did not return a phone call seeking comment on the meeting.
According to Fierro, Attorney General Ford was present at the beginning of the meeting but didn’t stay for the whole thing. Still, his presence was important enough that Tesla referred to it in a series of emails to OSHA that occurred afterward.
At the meeting, Nevada political appointees acquiesced to Tesla’s opposition to the comprehensive inspection recommended by on-the-ground OSHA safety inspectors. Instead, they let Tesla identify specific areas the company would open to inspectors and agreed they would tell Judge Russell the company allowed access to inspectors.
“This was specifically mentioned by Attorney General Ford at our meeting,” Tesla’s lawyer Yesenia Villasenor wrote, referring to telling the judge that Tesla complied.
The final details of the inspection were hammered out over a series of emails between OSHA and Tesla, over the objections of OSHA’s on-the-ground safety officers.
In an email on May 24, Jacob LaFrance, manager of OSHA’s Northern Nevada district, urged his higher-ups to go back to the judge rather than agree to a limited inspection of the Gigafactory.
“I also suggested that advising the judge as to the denial of the warrant, and then executing the warrant, in my opinion would be the best course of action for workers on-site,” LaFrance wrote in an email on May 24. “But whatever the decision is with respect to the areas identified for inspection, I’ll do my best to execute the orders.”
In a written statement, Ford’s spokeswoman Monica Moazez said the meeting at Ford’s office was a routine matter. Lawyers with the attorney general’s office represent OSHA and the Department of Business and Industry.
“Our office participated in this meeting in order to represent our client, the Nevada Business and Industry, Division of Industrial Relations,” Moazez said. “As Attorney General, AG Ford often assists in representing clients and participates in meetings and negotiations as often as his schedule allows.”
Moazez declined to comment further on the outcome of the meeting, saying the Department of Business and Industry is responsible for any decisions made at the meeting.
Despite compromise, much of Gigafactory remains a mystery
In the end, OSHA inspectors were allowed into specific areas of the factory and were given five days to interview Gigafactory employees at random. While Tesla said inspectors could review some company documents, the company still hasn’t turned over its injury logs and other safety planning documents, Lankford said.
During its limited inspection, OSHA officers found no evidence of brown drinking water or that employees were exposed to silica. They also found no violations occurred when the employee lost consciousness and fell and no health concerns associated with the new glue.
Inspectors did observe multiple safety hazards during their five day inspection, including trip and fall hazards and an improper device used to prevent falls. Inspectors recommended only one violation be cited. Limits on employee interviews prevented OSHA from issuing other citations, according to the inspection report.
Tesla told inspectors it abated all of the hazards noted in the inspection, the report said.
As of the publication of this story, OSHA has not conducted a comprehensive inspection of the Gigafactory.
In an interview with the Reno Gazette Journal, Fierro urged Tesla to participate in the agency’s voluntary protection program, in which OSHA safety officers provide companies with rigorous safety consultation.
“The advantage of that is that we have consultants go out and do workplace investigations looking for hazards, they identify hazards and if the employer fixes them within a reasonable amount of time, then they get no fines from OSHA,” Fierro said.
In its May 30 letter outlining the agreement brokered at the attorney general’s office, Tesla indicated it was “intending to pursue participation in that program. As of mid-February, Tesla had not followed through on the application process, Fierro said.
Anjeanette Damon is the government watchdog reporter for the RGJ. You can reach her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @AnjeanetteDamon. If you care about shining a bright light on decisions made by your elected officials, please consider subscribing to the Reno Gazette Journal.