Lane Dillon woke up for work with a bad feeling. He clearly remembers thinking: “Man, I hope nothing happens to me.”
Dillon had recently been hired at the Tesla Gigafactory, as a temp worker for a subcontractor that installed battery racks at the giant factory just outside of Reno, Nevada. He was excited about the job. The prestige that Tesla brought to the region had half the state abuzz.
But people had been getting hurt in his unit, he said. And Dillon left home that morning with a nagging sense of worry.
Several hours into his shift, Dillon was helping guide a rack into place so it could be bolted into the factory floor. The racks are so heavy it takes a team of four people to maneuver them.
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Unfortunately for Dillon, he was the guy holding the bottom of the rack. He was still pulling his hand out when the team dropped it.
“When it hit my finger and I pulled it out, I knew,” he said. “I was like ‘OK, something's not there anymore.’”
He was wearing gloves, so he couldn’t immediately see that the rack had smashed off the top inch of his right index finger.
Dillon is now a 24-year-old grad student at the Georgia Institute of Technology. But in 2017 his was one in a string of injuries that happened in the three years that Tesla’s first Gigafactory was being built and put into production.
It’s impossible to tell whether Dillon’s injury could have been avoided because the company never reported it to workplace safety inspectors as required by state and federal law.
But other challenging impacts of the company’s rapid growth are clear.
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From straining local emergency responders, to exacerbating the region’s critical housing shortage and taxing area roads, Tesla has brought a host of complications to the region. State and local governments were ill-prepared for those consequences and, because of the tax abatements, had limited financial resources to address them, according to a months-long examination by USA TODAY’s investigative podcast, The City.
It all began in 2014, when Nevada won a fierce competition among states for Tesla’s ambitious battery factory project.
Tesla had promised states it would construct a factory bigger than any building in the world, employ thousands of people and generate at least $5 billion in capital investment. To score the project, local officials promised lightning fast construction permits and state lawmakers rushed through the largest tax abatement package in state history, worth $1.3 billion.
Tesla, and its partner Panasonic, built the factory at a furious pace, putting it into production even as construction continued. Tesla CEO Elon Musk had promised investors the company would be making 5,000 Model 3 sedans per week by the end of 2017. The Gigafactory was key to that goal.
And it ramped up fast. Employment at the factory jumped from 24 people in 2015 to 3,200 by the end of 2017 and double that by the end of 2018. Today more than 7,000 people work there.
The undertaking dwarfed anything Northern Nevada had seen before.
Inside the famed factory
Musk hasn’t yet delivered on his promise to build the world’s largest building in the Nevada desert. But at 30 percent completion, the Gigafactory is already a monolith.
Tucked into the burnt-brown hillsides of the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center about 20 miles east of Reno, the building is a half-mile long and nearly a quarter-mile wide at its widest point.
Getting into the secretive factory isn’t easy. Guards at an entrance station stop anyone without authorization from going farther. As construction was underway, Tesla bought up thousands of acres around the factory, in part to protect it from looky-loos.
Although Tesla has begun giving community tours in the last year or so, it took weeks of discussion before USA TODAY was allowed in.
Inside, the factory is overwhelming to the senses: giant robot arms swing through the air, driverless forklifts hum and honk around the work sites, workers rush to their stations to keep up with demanding goals.
The building is so cavernous that even the tour guides got lost showing reporters around. Tesla’s vice president for operations, Chris Lister said he puts in more than 10,000 steps a day. A bathroom break can require a 20-minute round trip trek.
Everything is on a gargantuan scale. It took more than 8,000 construction workers to build the factory. The more than 7,000 people who work there now churn out millions of battery cells a week.
The Nevada factory is Tesla’s first Gigafactory. A second one is under construction in China and the company is still looking for a site for a third in Europe. As the first, the Nevada Gigafactory is a test kitchen of sorts.
“The thing about the Gigafactory 1, is it was really an experiment in, how can we make things as efficient as possible?” Lister said. “And you know, Gigafactory 10, let's say, is gonna be 10 times better than Gigafactory 1 from all of the learnings that we capture as we go on.”
All of that experimentation — designing manufacturing lines as they were put into production, for instance, and constructing the building at the same time it was up and running as a factory — also created a particularly chaotic environment, according to interviews and public documents.
‘We are requesting EMS’
Getting a full accounting of workplace injuries is difficult. Federal law doesn’t require site-specific injury totals to be reported publicly.
Documents obtained by USA TODAY, including 911 calls and inspection reports from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, show injuries at the Gigafactory near Reno occur on a routine basis: at least three a month.
Tesla has had documented safety problems at its factory in Fremont, California. Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found Tesla underreported its injuries, failed to properly train its workers and even avoided recommended safety markings because Musk reportedly doesn’t like the color yellow. Forbes also found the Fremont factory had racked up more fines and workplace safety violations than other car manufacturing plants.
As was the case in Fremont, the Gigafactory has created substantial work for the state’s OSHA office. Inspectors were onsite at Tesla more than 90 times in its first three years of operation. On average, other factories in the area saw an inspector once in the same time period.
Since 2017, Tesla has been fined $26,900 for workplace safety violations at the Gigafactory but has succeeded in getting almost all of the fines reduced or eliminated. Three of the four fines involved amputations.
Even OSHA doesn’t have a complete inventory of workplace injuries. Dillon’s injury, for example, was never reported to the agency, even though he suffered an amputation and was hospitalized. State and federal law requires a report for all amputations and injuries that require hospitalization.
The factory is also the source of a flood of 911 emergency calls. In 2018, someone called 911 from the Gigafactory more than once a day, on average, for things like fights, suicide attempts, DUIs, thefts and drug overdoses.
A quarter of those 911 calls were for medical concerns, like heart problems, difficulty breathing, seizures and pregnancy issues. Those calls also included workplace injuries: finger amputations like Dillon’s, an electrocution, head injuries from unsecured construction debris blowing off the roof in a windstorm, people falling through holes in the floor.
Emergency response to the factory is difficult because of its size and severe communication problems hamper getting critical information to dispatchers in a timely manner.
During a chemical spill in 2017, for example, firefighters were met with “quite a bit of resistance” from Tesla managers, according to the incident report. Tesla supervisors couldn’t immediately provide the name of the chemical that spilled, or help firefighters account for people who should’ve been evacuated from the building. Workers ignored caution tape meant to keep them out of contaminated areas.
Twelve people were treated and released from the hospital. They had been exposed to carbonic acid, a byproduct of the battery production process that causes respiratory issues and skin and eye irritation. No one suffered serious injury.
None of that surprised Chad Dehne, who worked at the Gigafactory for several months supervising teams of temp workers who inspect battery canisters. He was there during a similar incident in 2018.
When a call came in to evacuate, Dehne said workers scattered. No one seemed to be in charge of making sure everyone made it out safely, he said. As a supervisor, he used his own homemade sign-in sheets to find all of his workers on duty that day.
“Come to find out there was two people that were still inside the building,” he said. “I went inside ... They were in there working! And being exposed. These guys said ‘Evacuate the building,’ and just beat feet. And not one person was responsible for going in there to make sure that everybody was gone.”
Because of the tax abatements granted by state lawmakers, Tesla can operate essentially tax free in Nevada for 10 years and with a substantially reduced tax bill for another decade. Since 2017, Storey County, home to the Gigafactory, has lost out on $65 million in tax revenue.
In other words, Tesla’s not helping pay for the increase in government services it’s using.
Take the Storey County Fire District, which is responsible for responding to all of those calls for emergency medical service. Last year, firefighters responded 104 times to 1 Electric Avenue, home of the Gigafactory.
The fire chief had to open and staff a new fire station to respond to the increased demand.
On one hand, Chief Jeff Nevin downplayed the impact the Gigafactory’s arrival has had on his department.
“There might be days where those are the only calls that we run,” Nevin said. “But you know, four days after that, we don't go at all. So it evens out.”
But then he acknowledged the county is under a strain trying to respond to those additional calls without additional tax revenue.
“Right now we're still dealing with, you know, trying to work within the same confines that we had four or five years ago,” he said.
Although the assessed value of property in his district has spiked 74 percent since Tesla’s arrival, the fire department’s property tax revenue has grown by only 7 percent.
‘Tesla helped me figure myself out’
Tesla contends the USA TODAY’s focus on safety issues is unfair. The company declined to make anyone available for an interview, but said in a statement that “a few isolated incidents ... are not representative of our overall safety culture at Gigafactory 1.”
“Tesla, our suppliers, and our contractors make up over 10,000 people on-site — the size of a small city,” the statement said. “To report that both personal and work-related medical emergencies over the course of four years make Tesla an outlier is unfair and misleading.”
Although Tesla claimed to have a better injury rate than other factories, it declined to provide any data to support the claim. Because injury totals couldn’t be obtained through a public records request, it was impossible to verify it by comparing it to publicly available industry averages.
So far, Tesla has met all of the requirements set by lawmakers to be eligible for the tax credits. Most of the employees at the factory are Nevada residents and the company has made $4.9 billion in capital investments, all for its own factory — including the value of the land, the building and all of the equipment inside of it.
The average wage of Tesla workers is $30 an hour, four times Nevada’s minimum wage. And many of the jobs there require a skilled workforce, something Tesla is helping cultivate in the state by funding science and engineering programs in local schools and paying for college training for some workers.
For some, the factory has offered a career path that didn’t exist before.
Isabelle West, an engaging 19-year-old with pink hair, grew up in Las Vegas. She struggled through high school and couldn’t get into college. But through a program for at-risk students at her school, she got an interview with Tesla.
“And it took two weeks, but when that phone call (came in), my mom was right there with me,” West said. “And I was like, ‘I got the job!’"
West started as a production associate making $14.50 an hour and is in a training program at the local community college to become a technician. Her tuition is covered by Tesla. She hopes to become an engineer some day, something she said she never would have imagined before.
“Tesla kind of helped me figure out myself,” she said.
The housing crunch
When West arrived in Reno for the job, she hit a major snag: she couldn’t find housing.
“My parents actually went and bought for my graduation gift a little RV trailer type thing that I could live in,” she said. “They're like, ‘Oh you can just go get an RV spot and stay there and it'll be cheaper on you.’”
But she couldn’t find an open RV spot anywhere near the Gigafactory. Some Tesla workers are living out of RVs parked on city streets or in Walmart parking lots. Telltale black-and-white Tesla parking passes hang from their rearview mirrors.
So West and her parents took to Craigslist looking for a roommate or affordable apartment. Again, no luck.
Eventually, the program that helped West get the job at Tesla also found her housing. She and other workers in her program are living in student housing near the University of Nevada, Reno.
Not everyone is so lucky.
Donald Thomas, a 50-year-old electrician from Michigan, lives in a tent next to the train tracks near downtown Reno. He moved here to work at the Gigafactory. While he was on the job, he lived in a hotel room paid for by his employer.
"I always enjoy the work,” he said of his time as an electrician. “I like to see what it looks like and what it does after it’s all put together, after it works. I’m standing there saying, ‘Damn, I did that.’”
But after a dispute with his foreman, he said he lost the job and his housing. He stayed at the homeless shelter for awhile, but said his tools were stolen there. Without his tools, he couldn’t find work.
Reno is in the midst of a critical housing shortage. The city’s only homeless shelter is chronically over capacity. The weekly motels relied on as housing of last resort by 4,000 people are being torn down. The waiting list for housing assistance is so long that new names are no longer being added.
Apartment vacancy rates are near zero. The median housing price has spiked to $400,000. And no-cause evictions are up 300 percent as landlords sell out to new landlords, who in turn raise the rent.
Even Tesla’s Musk has lamented the lack of local housing, saying it’s the biggest constraint on growth at the Gigafactory.
“We're looking at creating a sort of housing compound just on the site of the Gigafactory, using high quality kind of mobile homes, which I think would be great because then people could actually just walk here,” he said at a 2018 tech summit.
So far, that housing compound has not been built, leaving workers on the road commuting from outside the area.
Traffic has increased exponentially on the highway running through the industrial park that’s home to the Gigafactory, jumping from 5,100 to 19,000 vehicles a day in three years. On the freeway between the park and Reno, traffic has increased 50 percent in the same time period.
The Reno City Council has been reacting to the housing shortfall by expanding the homeless shelter, creating dorm-style workforce housing and planning for a tiny-home village.
But very little, if any, of that work was done — or planned — before the region went after the Gigafactory project.
“We could have done better ... when it comes to zoning and other things that would encourage more affordable housing, more infill, more multi-family,” said Mike Kazmierski, who heads the Economic Development Association of Western Nevada. “It's time to play catch up.”
Fil Corbitt and Emily Liu, producers with The City podcast, contributed additional reporting to this story.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tesla promised jobs but delivered a housing crisis, injured workers