April 19, 2024

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Rivian employees say rapid production led to injuries at Illinois plant

Rivian employees say rapid production led to injuries at Illinois plant

At least a dozen employees at Rivian Automotive Inc. have accused the electric-vehicle maker of safety violations at its Illinois plant, according to complaints filed with federal regulators. 

The complaints allege the company ignored known hazards and deprioritized safety resources, leaving some workers to share respirators needed during the manufacturing process. They also detail a range of injuries, including a crushed hand, a broken foot, a sliced ear and broken ribs. One Rivian employee said management fished damaged electrical cables out of the garbage and told employees to use them.

Together, the filings depict an automaker that cut corners as it scaled rapidly to keep pace in the competitive electric-vehicle space. Some employees described safety protocols that faded as production pressures grew on its trademark plug-in pickup truck. 

“There’s a certain level of danger involved in manufacturing,” Don Jackson, one of the employees who filed a complaint, said in an interview. “But I was expecting safety to be a little more prioritized.”

In statements to Bloomberg News, a Rivian spokesperson disputed workers’ allegations but declined to comment on specific complaints, citing employee privacy. The spokesperson said the dozen complainants represent just 0.2% of the 6,700 employees at the plant.

“Creating a safe and inspiring environment is a daily practice we expect of every Rivian employee and is part of our operating procedures,” the company said in an emailed statement, adding: “We are not aware of any manager directing employees to share respirators.”

UAW involved in the allegations

The allegations were filed over the past two months with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and are directed at the automaker’s only operational plant, in Normal, Illinois. All 12 employees, one of whom has since left Rivian, filed their complaints in coordination with the United Auto Workers union, which has been trying to organize Rivian plant workers over the past year. The UAW shared the filings with Bloomberg News.

Several of the complaints describe hazards that did not result in injury, but that employees feared would.

Jackson, who joined the company in March, said in his complaint that “trucks frequently veer into pedestrian aisles” and bulldoze racks in a manner that could cause them to accidentally strike people.

There have been “many near misses” with powered industrial vehicles nearly hitting people, wrote Kailey Harvey, another employee. Sensors meant to display whether trucks were correctly locked in place sometimes give false readings because they aren’t calibrated to the height of the vehicles, she wrote. 

“At first, it was really great,” Harvey, a former UAW member who joined Rivian last year, said in an interview. “Slowly, as production kept climbing, the concern for safety dropped.” 

In a short period of time, Irvine, California-based Rivian has recruited an army of engineers, vehicle assembly technicians and factory floor managers from legacy automotive names like Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co., mostly at its flagship plant in Normal, which is capable of building 150,000 electric vehicles a year. It’s also hired top talent from Tesla Inc. and Apple Inc. as part of a push to scale up and produce mass-market electric vehicles.

Rivian quickly emerged as a viable challenger in the EV market dominated by Tesla and a few legacy automakers, attracting keen interest from an A-list of Wall Street investors and strategic backers like Ford and Amazon.com Inc. The company’s initial public offering last November was the sixth biggest in US history. 

Recorded incidents rate is favorable

The employee claims “suggest a factory that is far from operational excellence,” said David Michaels, who led OSHA under former President Barack Obama and is now a professor at George Washington University’s public health school. “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.” 

“These reported injuries reflect poor management control of production processes, suggesting that the quality of the factory’s output will also be suboptimal,” he added.

The company’s shares fell 1.7% as of 7:25 a.m. Monday in New York. The stock tumbled 71% this year through Friday’s close.

Rivian said data it compiles for OSHA show it already outperforms its peers on health and safety. Its Total Recordable Incident Rate is 2.5 cases for every 200,000 hours worked, less than the industry average of 6.4 cases, according to the company. The data also show Rivian’s safety performance improving, with the incident rate dropping 44% since January, a spokesperson said. “Our proactive actions and activities are having a significantly positive impact on safety,” Rivian said.

OSHA concerns about safety at fledgling EV-makers — driven by worker complaints — are not new. In 2018, California regulators probed Tesla’s workplace safety as the market leader dramatically ramped up production of its first mass market vehicle. 

OSHA currently has open investigations into seven complaints at the Normal plant, an agency spokesperson said. Previously, the regulator issued four “serious” citations against Rivian, including three from earlier this year that ended in settlements with the agency.

‘Like talking to a wall’

Some workers said they had notified management about their concerns before filing complaints with federal regulators. Jackson wrote that he had raised safety concerns with numerous supervisors, but they went unheard. “It’s like talking to a wall,” he said in the interview.

One employee, Heather Barschdorf, wrote directly to Rivian Chief Executive Officer RJ Scaringe with worries that hazards in her work area could affect her pregnancy.

“The fumes in my area make us sick some days even without being pregnant,” she wrote in the Sept. 23 email to Scaringe, which was viewed by Bloomberg News. Her email said she had experienced miscarriage in the past and was at very high risk for another one.

“Many people in my area have become sick with flu like symptoms from exposure to the galvanized metal parts we are welding,” Barschdorf later wrote in an OSHA complaint filed Sept. 30. “I have asked for accommodation as a pregnant person including ventilation for paint fumes and respiratory protection numerous times and have been denied.” Her filing said she was given a dust mask in lieu of the proper kind of respirator.

Scaringe never replied to her email, she said, though a human resources representative referenced it in a later meeting with Barschdorf. The company did not act on her repeated requests to be moved to a different section of the factory, she said in an interview. “Rivian’s not listening to us,” she said.