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Is a factory of the future putting workers’ futures at risk?

Tesla’s “factory of the future” was once a decommissioned, unionized car plant based in Fremont, California. CEO Elon Musk repurposed the facility that now house giant robots that shape and fold sheets of metal. Named after X-Men from movie and comic book fame, they work alongside 10,000 human counterparts.

However, this so-called “gleaming white mecca of advanced manufacturing” has aggressive production goals that are placing pressure on flesh-and-bone employees. Musk has already projected that his company will manufacture 500,000 cars in 2018, representing a 495% increase from 2016.

Since 2014, ambulances have been called hundreds of times for Tesla workers suffering life-changing physical injuries and medical problems that have included fainting spells, dizziness, abnormal breathing, chest pains and seizures. Many have witnessed their peers collapsing in front of them, only to have others continue to work around them before EMTs arrive.

Tesla employees cite a culture of long hours under intense pressure. Those who are able to remain on their feet work through pain and injuries. Being placed on “light duty” while recovering pays half as much.

In their early years, Tesla admits that working condition were at their most dangerous with a recordable incident rate above the industry average between 2013 and 2016. However, the manufacturer has not released specific data during that time, claiming that it does not reflect current factory operations.

Musk continues his “safety first” mantra. More recent data does reveal reductions in incidents since last year. Tesla credits the addition of a third shift, a team of ergonomic experts, and improvement in safety teams.

The CEO asserts that his office is not in a comfortable corner, but in the worst place in the factory. He also claims to have slept on the factory floor in a sleeping bag where employees worked “to make it the most painful thing possible.”

Tesla workers seem conflicted. While they have pride and enthusiasm for their employer’s mission, a sustainable energy future does not lessen the disappointment over working conditions and the frustration of avoidable job-related injuries.

Production worker Richard Ortiz summed up his fellow workers’ feelings the best, “It’s like you died and went to auto-worker heaven.”

He added a caveat, “Everything feels like the future but us.”

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