Robots work on Model S cars in Tesla’s factory in Fremont, Calif., in 2015. Tesla is among thousands of U.S. companies that once had to submit employee injury records to the federal government. But OSHA suspended that requirement, prompting a lawsuit last week by three interest groups. Credit: Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

A former high-level safety official at Tesla Inc. has sued the company for failing to treat injured employees and for misclassifying work injuries to avoid reporting them as required by law.

Carlos Ramirez, a director of environment, health, safety and sustainability at Tesla until June 2017, alleges he was fired in retaliation for reporting unsafe working conditions, such as chemical exposures and fires, and for refusing to go along with what he believed to be illegal practices.

More from Insult to Injury

An April investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that Tesla undercounted its workers’ injuries, making the official injury rate look better than it actually was.

The suit also says Ramirez, who is Mexican American, faced harassment based on his race and national origin and that Tesla failed to address it.

Ramirez previously worked as vice president of environmental, health and safety for SolarCity, a solar panel manufacturer Tesla acquired in 2016.

Carlos Ramirez, a former safety official at Tesla Inc., sued the automaker for allegedly firing him in retaliation for reporting unsafe working conditions and safety violations. Credit: LinkedIn

After he came to Tesla, Ramirez and his team audited the company’s internal injury tracking system, the suit says. The 2017 audit “revealed numerous instances of lack of treatment of Tesla employees that suffered workplace injuries, recordkeeping violations, and improper classification of workplace injuries to avoid treating and reporting workplace injuries,” it says.

Tesla shot back Monday, alleging that Ramirez was fired four months after coming from SolarCity because he harassed and bullied other employees.

“Mr. Ramirez was terminated because after an extensive investigation, it was clear that he had engaged over and over again in harassing workplace behavior and used extremely inappropriate language that violated any reasonable standard,” according to a statement provided by a Tesla spokesman.

“We conducted our investigation after we received an onslaught of complaints about Mr. Ramirez’s behavior, with nearly a dozen different employees stating that he engaged in clear bullying, sought to intimidate his colleagues, and repeatedly made inappropriate comments about women,” the statement said. “Bullying and harassment have no place at Tesla.”

Ramirez’s lawsuit says Tesla wrongfully accused him of bullying and “brought unfounded complaints against him.”

Internal records obtained by Reveal showed that the electric car manufacturer labeled significant work injuries as personal medical issues or minor incidents requiring only first aid.

Reveal’s investigation also cited several former members of Tesla’s environment, health and safety team who said Tesla shot down their concerns and prioritized cranking out electric vehicles over the well-being of the people building them. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, in a Twitter tirade against the news media, called Reveal’s report “carefully constructed propaganda.”

California’s workplace safety agency launched an investigation after the story, but a weakness in the law means Tesla might not face penalties for undercounting injuries.

Ramirez’s suit says Tesla “made allegedly untrue statements to the state and the public based on incorrect” injury logs and injury rate numbers.

At Tesla’s annual shareholder meeting this month, Musk said employee safety “is a super important thing to me because we obviously owe a great debt to the people who are building the car.”

Musk said the company’s injury rate so far this year is 6 percent below the industry average.

“We think being twice as good as the average in the auto industry is a very achievable number and that’s what we’re working hard to achieve,” he said.

Musk has made similar claims in the past that didn’t pan out. When Reveal noted that, a Tesla spokesman said Musk meant that Tesla is working on eventually getting to half the injury rate, not that it would happen this year.

Ramirez’s suit says that he reported unsafe conditions and potential legal violations, including the improper classification of work injuries, at a meeting of Tesla employees in May 2017.

After the meeting, the suit alleges that Seth Woody, Tesla’s top health and safety official at the time, complained that Ramirez made Woody and others “look like fools” and that Ramirez was “not working well with the team” and “should watch his back.”

The lawsuit says Ramirez’s other complaints included concerns about chemical and oil spills, improper storage and disposal practices in the factory, and failures to change work procedures even after multiple injuries.

Ramirez also reported being harassed by two Tesla employees, who allegedly made “derogatory comments and unfounded complaints” against him because of his race and national origin. The lawsuit says Woody told Ramirez that reporting the harassment “would just create problems.” Tesla has faced multiple lawsuits and complaints about racial harassment and discrimination.

Woody referred questions back to the company, writing to Reveal that “Tesla has all of the facts.” Woody left Tesla last fall and the company hired Laurie Shelby as a new vice president for safety, according to chief people officer Gaby Toledano.

Before Ramirez raised his concerns last year, another former Tesla safety professional had complained to Musk’s office directly.

Justine White joined Woody’s team in September 2016 to oversee safety for thousands of workers on Tesla’s general assembly line in Fremont, California. By December that year, she emailed Musk’s chief of staff, writing that safety team leaders were failing to address serious hazards in the factory. White said she didn’t hear back.

In a March 2017 resignation letter she sent directly to Musk, White wrote, “What I discovered was a very fractured, severely understaffed team that had little cohesion or trust.”

In her first week at the factory, White told Woody “that the plant layout was extremely dangerous to pedestrians due to lack of right-of-ways, and demarcations separating pedestrians from forklifts, tuggers and other vehicles.” Woody responded “that Elon didn’t want signs, anything yellow (like caution tape) or to wear safety shoes in the plant” and acknowledged it “was a mess,” White wrote.

White also wrote that she made “repeated safety recommendations” to her supervisor and Woody “regarding informing employees of forklift hazards in a timely manner after an employee’s lower leg was amputated when run-over.”

Frustrated that Woody “did not have a response” to her concerns, White brought up the safety problems, as well as complaints of sexism, in a meeting with a human resources representative.

Afterward, White said Woody called her and other safety team members into a meeting of his own, according to her resignation letter.

Woody, the letter states, “proceeded to yell and hit his fist on the table telling us that if we had any complaints or issues they were NOT to be discussed with anyone but him or we could find ‘another canoe to row in.’ ”

Tesla told Reveal that White’s complaints were investigated and found to be unsubstantiated.

Will Evans can be reached at wevans@revealnews.org. Follow him on Twitter: @willCIR.

Will Evans is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal, covering labor and tech. His reporting has prompted government investigations, legislation, reforms and prosecutions. A series on working conditions at Amazon warehouses was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and won a Gerald Loeb Award. His work has also won multiple Investigative Reporters and Editors Awards, including for a series on safety problems at Tesla. Other investigations have exposed secret spying at Uber, illegal discrimination in the temp industry and rampant fraud in California's drug rehab system for the poor. Prior to joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2005, Evans was a reporter at The Sacramento Bee. He is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.