Updated May 15 with safety information and a comment from Elon Musk
Tesla has reopened its factory in Fremont, California, and it’s been a big deal, with people saying they’ve canceled their Tesla orders, that CEO Elon Musk should also take responsibility for workers who contract COVID-19, and that Musk is putting profits before lives. But it’s less risky than you might think.
And I say this as someone who takes Coronavirus seriously, supports reasonable government restrictions on travel and social gatherings, and doesn’t hold any conspiracy theories (that I’m aware of!) around the origins of the virus or malign intentions of foreign or domestic actors in its spread.
The reason it’s less risky than you might assume — and that I assumed, when I first heard of it — is that Tesla has a lot of experience with COVID-19. Probably more experience than just about any other American company.
Tesla has a massive factory in Shanghai, China.
As such, it’s already gone through one of the most serious and severe shutdowns that any country on the planet has initiated. On my TechFirst podcast, I recently talked to a business executive in Beijing, a city that was barely touched by COVID-19, about what China did before allowing businesses to reopen.
“The company needs to apply for a special license from the government to make sure they are able to take precautions to ensure the safety of the employees,” James Ren, a sales executive, told me. “For example, if the company’s able to provide enough face masks to their employees, or they can sterilize the public area on a daily basis, if they don’t … if they cannot do it, all the employees are not allowed to go back to the working place.”
According to Tesla, the company’s Shanghai Gigafactory experienced “smooth and healthy operations for the last three months.” The company has modeled its American plant reopening on that Shanghai plan.
“Tesla already went through this in China with 7,000 employees,” Elon Musk said on Twitter in a reaction to this story. “Zero fatalities or serious illnesses.”
Tesla isn’t the only U.S. company with operations in China, of course. Ford has a factory there as well, as do others. This means that multiple companies could benefit from learnings overseas about how to reopen safely in North America and Europe.
I’ve reviewed Tesla’s “return to work” playbook. It’s comprehensive, 38 pages long, and includes painstaking details around:
- social distancing
- masking and personal protective equipment
- temperature screening
- increased cleaning
- new touchless services
- adjusted work shifts to ensure fewer people are present in any given area at one time
- suspended visits and tours
- daily health checks
- air filter checks
- and much, much more
The problem with public perception around Tesla re-opening — besides the automatic approval from people who want to reopen everything everywhere immediately, with no COVID-19 safety restrictions — is likely that Musk hasn’t shared much of that context in his terse and sometimes-abrupt tweets, which include peremptory threats to move his factory to another state.
At least, that was the cause for my initial reaction, which was basically: Elon being Elon again.
As analyst and author Jeremiah Owyang puts it:
“The leadership is erratic which is worrisome as the product could also reflect those same values. He’s literally risking (worker) lives, would he do the same to drivers and passengers?”
That’s a valid concern.
And Tesla has been fined multiple times for safety violations at its Fremont factory as a result of 24 investigations by California Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors from 2014 to 2018. That speaks to ongoing problems with worker safety. There has been progress — 50% fewer injuries — but there’s also been incomplete safety data as recently as March, according to regulators.
Be that as it may, as matters stand now, the county and Tesla have reached an agreement to reopen the factory next week … while not acknowledging that it has been operating for days already.
Power speaks, apparently.
But in this case, at least, it has spoken for something that is probably safer than most who heard about it initially might have thought.