Inside Alabama’s Auto Jobs Boom: Cheap Wages, Little Training, Crushed Limbs
The South’s manufacturing renaissance comes with a heavy price.
Regina Elsea was a year old in 1997 when the first vehicle rolled off the Mercedes-Benz assembly line near Tuscaloosa. That gleaming M-Class SUV was historic. Alabama, the nation’s fifth-poorest state, had wagered a quarter-billion dollars in tax breaks and other public giveaways to land the first major Mercedes factory outside Germany. Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai followed with Alabama plants of their own. Kia built a factory just over the border in West Point, Ga. The auto parts makers came next. By the time Elsea and her five siblings were teenagers, the country roads and old cotton fields around their home had come alive with 18-wheelers shuttling instruments and stamped metal among the car plants and 160 parts suppliers that had sprouted up across the state.
A good student, Elsea loved reading, horses, and dogs, especially her Florida cracker cur, named Cow. She dreamed of becoming a pediatrician. She enrolled in community college on a federal Pell Grant, with plans to transfer to Auburn University, about 30 miles from her home in Five Points. But she fell in love with a kindergarten sweetheart, who’d become a stocker at a local Walmart, and dropped out of school to make money so they could rent their own place.
Elsea went to work in February 2016 at Ajin USA in Cusseta, Ala., the same South Korean supplier of auto parts for Hyundai and Kia where her sister and stepdad worked. Her mother, Angel Ogle, warned her against it. She’d worked at two other parts suppliers in the area and found the pace and pressure unbearable.
Elsea was 20 and not easily deterred. “She thought she was rich when she brought home that first paycheck,” Ogle says. Elsea and her boyfriend got engaged. She worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, hoping to move from temporary status at Ajin to full time, which would bring a raise from $8.75 an hour to $10.50. College can wait, she told her mom and stepdad.
On June 18, Elsea was working the day shift when a computer flashed “Stud Fault” on Robot 23. Bolts often got stuck in that machine, which mounted pillars for sideview mirrors onto dashboard frames. Elsea was at the adjacent workstation when the assembly line stopped. Her team called maintenance to clear the fault, but no one showed up. A video obtained by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration shows Elsea and three co-workers waiting impatiently. The team had a quota of 420 dashboard frames per shift but seldom made more than 350, says Amber Meadows, 23, who worked beside Elsea on the line. “We were always trying to make our numbers so we could go home,” Meadows says. “Everybody was always tired.”
After several minutes, Elsea grabbed a tool—on the video it looks like a screwdriver—and entered the screened-off area around the robot to clear the fault herself. Whatever she did to Robot 23, it surged back to life, crushing Elsea against a steel dashboard frame and impaling her upper body with a pair of welding tips. A co-worker hit the line’s emergency shut-off. Elsea was trapped in the machine—hunched over, eyes open, conscious but speechless.
No one knew how to make the robot release her. The team leader jumped on a forklift and raced across the factory floor to the break room, where he grabbed a maintenance man and drove him back on his lap. The technician, from a different part of the plant, had no idea what to do. Tempers erupted as Elsea’s co-workers shoved the frightened man, who was Korean and barely spoke English, toward the robot, demanding he make it retract. He fought them off and ran away, Meadows says. When emergency crews arrived several minutes later, Elsea was still stuck. The rescue workers finally did what Elsea had failed to do: locked out the machine’s emergency power switch so it couldn’t reenergize again—a basic precaution that all factory workers are supposed to take before troubleshooting any industrial robot. Ajin, according to OSHA, had never given the workers their own safety locks and training on how to use them, as required by federal law. Ajin is contesting that finding.