At least a dozen Rivian employees accused the automaker of overlooking crucial safety issues.
A crushed hand, broken foot, broken ribs and a sliced ear — these are some of the incidents cited in complaints with federal regulators alleging a shift in the company’s safety culture.
According to a new Bloomberg report Monday, workers at Rivian‘s Normal, Illinois manufacturing plant accused management of ignoring known hazards. Over time, lapsed safety protocols and the emphasis toward ramping up production led to some injuries and “many near misses”, including industrial vehicles nearly veering into people.
The employees in question filed complaints over the past several months.
“At first, it was really great,” said Kailey Harvey, a former UAW member who joined Rivian last year. “Slowly, as production kept climbing, the concern for safety dropped,” she continued in an interview. Among the dozen employees who complained, instances of “deprioritized safety resources” include sharing respirators during some elements of the manufacturing process. One unnamed employee noted managers retrieved damaged electrical cables from the garbage and told employees to use them.
Don Jackson, another employee who filed a complaint against Rivian, also expressed his concerns in an interview. “There’s a certain level of danger involved in manufacturing,” he said. “But I was expecting safety to be a little more prioritized.”
Rivian denies claims that it mishandles safety protocols, ignores concerns
In disputing its employees’ claims, Rivian told reporters its safety record beats that of its peers in the industry. In a statement to Bloomberg, a spokesperson said, “Creating a safe and inspiring environment is a daily practice we expect of every Rivian employee and is part of our operating procedures.” To that end, they noted the dozen complaints amount to 0.2% of the Normal plant’s 6,700-strong workforce.
The company further said in a statement that, “We are not aware of any manager directing employees to share respirators.”
All 12 employees filed their complaints with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), in coordination with the United Auto Workers (UAW) union. The UAW is working to organize the plant, as it had been under previous owner Mitsubishi Motors.
Rivian, for its part, said its safety data shows it outperforms other automakers on safety issues. For every 200,000 hours worked, the company says its total incident rate is 2.5 cases, against the industry average of 6.4. The company spokesperson said its incident rate had also dropped 44% since January. “Our proactive actions and activities are having a significantly positive impact on safety.”
Still, some employees and regulators alike remain unconvinced.
David Michaels, a former OSHA administrator during the Obama administration, said the claims “suggest a factory that is far from operational excellence. If workers are being hurt, it is evidence that the factory management is not doing its job in ensuring that operations are being performed properly.” He went on to state that safety incidents and poor response by management suggests a negative effect on vehicles’ build quality.
OSHA currently has seven open investigations into Rivian, and previously issued four “serious” citations against the automaker. Three of them from earlier this year ended with settlements.
Another complaint by Rivian employee Heather Barschdorf shows employees tried to notify management of their concerns before filing an OSHA complaint. In Barschdorf’s case, she reached out directly to Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe. “The fumes in my area make us sick some days even without being pregnant,” she wrote on September 23. She later added in her complaint, filed a week later, that “many people in my area have become sick with flu-like symptoms from exposure to the galvanized metal parts we are welding. I have asked for accommodation as a pregnant person including ventilation for paint fumes and respiratory protection numerous times and have been denied.” According to the filing, she received a dust mask instead of a proper respirator.
“Rivian’s not listening to us,” she said in an interview.
Scaringe never responded to her email, but human resources later brought it up in a meeting with Barschdorf. She suffered a miscarriage two weeks after filing her OSHA complaint and resigned from the company in November. Again, the Rivian spokesperson denied these claims: “There is no evidence that anything in the work environment caused or contributed to a personal miscarriage.”
A battery pack explosion in that caused a fire with 10-foot-high flames, according to Harvey’s complaint, also raised safety concerns among the Normal plant staff.
“I witnessed a person pull the fire alarm and nothing happened,” she wrote. “People were coughing and at least one worker has an asthma attack while walking through the smoke,” after evacuating and allegedly being told to return inside the building for a head count. Harvey further said that no fire drills or follow-up training have been conducted on her shift since the incident.
Rivian says it’s spent millions of dollars on safety. To date, it’s amassed a team of 70 professionals dedicated to the task, and the spokesperson further said it conducts routine trainings and safety inspections. After the battery fire, the company said it spent $70,000 to “acquire a sophisticated gas measurement device from Finland” that can assess indoor air quality after fires. That came as part of the company’s “comprehensive thermal event response plan”.
Worker complaints against EV automakers are nothing new
Rivian Automotive is far from the only fledging EV manufacturer facing scrutiny from safety authorities. As Tesla ramped up Model 3 production in 2018, it also faced a probe from California regulators.
More recently, construction workers filed several complaints against Tesla with the U.S. Department of Labor this month, citing multiple violations including withheld wages and serious safety concerns while constructing the company’s latest Gigafactory near Austin, Texas. One worker told The Guardian that, “Every day, there was a safety issue.”