Tesla fined $110K over alleged safety violations at Hampshire College solar array

  • Solar arrays at Hampshire College. Submitted photo

  • Hampshire College professor Seeta Sistla, an ecosystem ecologist, gives families and alumni a tour of the college's solar arrays in the fall of 2017. Andrew Hart

Published: 5/9/2018 8:42:20 PM

AMHERST — The electric vehicle and solar-panel corporation Tesla has received what appears to be the company’s largest ever safety fine after an employee suffered a high-voltage electrical shock while working on Hampshire College’s solar panels.

The fines, which were first reported by The Center for Investigative Reporting’s website, Reveal, total more than $110,000 and are the result of nine “serious” safety citations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The violations stem from a Dec. 29 incident, when a worker was shocked and burned after entering an electrical panel to take pictures of equipment after construction had been completed, according to an OSHA spokesman.

Tesla plans to appeal the fines.

In 2015, Hampshire College signed a power-purchase agreement with the company SolarCity, which Tesla purchased in 2016. SolarCity owns and operates the college’s 19 acres of solar arrays, providing 100 percent of on-campus electricity to the college at a fixed rate.

Hampshire College spokesman John Courtmanche said the injured Tesla employee walked to the Eric Carle Museum after the incident, where an ambulance was called and brought the worker to the hospital.

“We were relieved when we heard that he was released from the hospital and was recovering,” Courtmanche said. “The college was closed at the time, so we didn’t have any employee working with the Tesla employee.”

Following that incident, OSHA’s Springfield office opened an investigation on Jan. 3, during which the agency “became aware of some deficiencies with the employer’s electrical safe work practice training and procedures as they pertained to solar power generation,” according to spokesman Ted Fitzgerald.

OSHA issued the nine serious violations April 17. One citation alleges employees were not trained in and aware of keeping the minimum distance from equipment energized at 13,800 volts. Another says Tesla reportedly didn’t have a demonstrated proficiency requirement for employees using electrical test equipment.

Other citations allege that Tesla lacked periodic inspections of energy control procedures, didn’t ensure that employees avoided bringing conductive objects close to energized equipment, failed to make sure employees exposed to “electric arc hazards” wore protective clothing, didn’t install protective grounds to prevent exposure to electrical shocks, and didn’t maintain guarding of energized parts to prevent accidental contact.

Company response

In a statement, Tesla said the company’s investigation revealed that the employee involved in the incident was performing work on equipment he was not authorized or tasked to work on.

“He was treated immediately, has since recovered from his injury and has been back working at Tesla for the last few months,” the statement reads. “It’s worth noting that we’ve never had another incident like this in the more than 250,000 service appointments at SolarCity and Tesla Energy. We don’t believe these citations are appropriate, so we will be appealing them.”

The company is scheduled to meet with OSHA on Thursday as part of an informal conference related to the citations. Tesla can dispute the citations, and could potentially reach an agreement with OSHA to lower the penalties levied against the company.

“It’s essentially a chance for OSHA and the employer to discuss the case,” Fitzgerald, the OSHA spokesman, said.

The $110,863 in fines appears to be the largest safety fine ever levied against Tesla, according to the Gazette’s review of OSHA citations posted online that date back to 2010.

Tesla has previously faced criticism over labor practices at its other facilities.

In September 2017, the U.S. labor board filed a complaint against the company over a confidentiality agreement workers were reportedly required to sign, barring them from discussing working conditions and safety issues at a factory in Freemont, California.

A contractor at that factory suffered second- and third-degree burns in 2017 from an electrical “arc flash,” according to Cal/OSHA records obtained by Reveal reporter Will Evans. Mark III Construction, the contractor, was fined more than $52,000 for the incident.

Tesla was itself cited for another arc flash-related injury at that factory in 2014, and a recent investigation by Reveal found what they said were “systemic safety problems” at the Freemont factory.

In a February 2017 blog post, a production worker at the Freemont factory, Jose Moran, alleged that employees there faced “excessive mandatory overtime,” high rates of preventable injuries, long working hours and low wages. Workers at the Freemont factory are non-union, as are the Tesla workers at Hampshire College, according to OSHA filings.

Courtmanche said the college isn’t aware of any broader safety concerns with SolarCity, and wasn’t aware of any when the agreement was signed.

“We certainly hope it doesn’t happen again,” Courtmanche said of the December incident. “We have a 20-year power purchase agreement with Tesla and we have had very strong working relationship with them. And we expect that strong relationship to continue.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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