A robot attacked a Tesla worker and left them bleeding on the automaker’s Austin factory floor two years ago, according to an explosive new report. It was one of a series of incidents at Giga Texas, a sprawling Austin factory that is key to Tesla’s goal of building a sub-$25,000 electric car.
The series of injuries reported by tech news outlet The Information offers a rare look into an oft-hidden part of the U.S. workplace—and a warning of what the future could look like as manufacturing becomes more and more automated.
At Giga Texas, an engineer had started to work on three robots sometime in 2021 but didn’t realize that only two had been shut off, The Information reported, citing two unnamed witnesses. The third robot kept moving and “pinned the engineer against a surface, pushing its claws into his body and drawing blood from his back and his arm,” the outlet said. After another worker hit an emergency stop button, the victim was able to get out of the robot’s grasp and fell down a scrap-metal chute, trailing blood behind him, The Information said. (Tesla did not respond to a request for comment from Fortune on the incident.)
It’s unclear if there was any federal response to the incident, although Tesla submitted an injury report to the county about a worker receiving a “laceration, cut or open wound” from a robot. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a division of the Labor Department that is responsible for workplace safety, inspected Tesla’s Austin factory just once a year in 2021 and 2022, most recently after a workers’ center filed a complaint about a subcontracted worker who suffered a heat-related injury while in the Tesla factory, according to The Information. In contrast, Tesla’s Fremont, Calif., factory received nine safety inspections each year in 2021 and 2022, and four so far in 2023, the outlet reported.
More robots, more injuries?
Tesla’s Austin factory appeared to be much more dangerous for workers than other auto plants, according to The Information’s analysis of federal data. Nearly one out of every 21 workers at the Austin factory was injured on the job last year—substantially higher than the one in 30 median injury rate at similar factories. (That group includes auto manufacturing plants with 250 or more employees.) The Fremont factory’s injury rate was even higher, with one in 12 workers being hurt on the job last year.
The 2021 incident offers a stark warning for workers of the future by breaking the first of Asimov’s laws of robotics, a set of principles laid out by science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov that states a robot must not hurt a human. More chillingly, a study published earlier this year by a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researcher found that 41 U.S. workers were killed in robot-related workplace incidents over a 15-year period. The vast majority of these deaths took place while a person was performing maintenance on a robot.
“These fatalities will likely increase over time because of the increasing number of conventional industrial robots being used by companies in the United States, and from the introduction of collaborative and coexisting robots, powered exoskeletons, and autonomous vehicles into the work environment,” concluded the CDC’s Center for Occupational Robotics Research.
Indeed, many employers are leaning into incorporating robots in the workplace. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has made no secret of his desire for a fully automated factory, telling investors in 2016 of his vision of an “alien dreadnought” of a factory floor that would have no people on the production line. Rising inflation and the growing costs of human labor are also pushing many employers to automate their businesses as they seek to boost profit margins.
U.S. employers brought on a record number of robots last year, Reuters reported. GXO Logistics is testing a humanoid robot at a factory in Georgia that can lift boxes and place objects on conveyor belts, and whose operational costs come to $10 to $12 per hour, according to Bloomberg.
To be sure, the research on robots at work is mixed. Researchers at Brookings note that introducing robots on the job can actually decrease the risk of injury—as long as the machines are given dangerous or repetitive tasks, such as cleaning up chemical spills, lifting heavy objects, or drilling underground. On the other hand, large industrial robots can also introduce danger if they are not designed to detect people nearby.
At least one other robotics-heavy large employer has demonstrated higher injury rates for its workers. Amazon, which employed 800,000 people in its U.S. warehouses at the end of 2021, has injury rates from all causes that are more than double that of its competitor, Walmart, according to a Washington Post analysis. Reporting from investigative news outlet Reveal found that the introduction of robots actually made workers’ jobs more dangerous, with injury rates higher at more-automated fulfillment centers.
“The robots were too efficient,” Reveal wrote. Because they moved so much faster than humans, they boosted the productivity quotas expected of a human worker, in some cases, by a factor of four. Amazon “has used the robots to ratchet up production quotas to the point that humans can’t keep up without hurting themselves,” the report concluded.
Amazon did not immediately respond to a Fortune request for comment; the company had told Reveal that it was investing more in safety training and equipment, and said that those investments “in technology and new safety infrastructure are working,” although Reveal’s data pointed to the opposite conclusion.