SpaceX has undoubtedly cemented its position as a leader in the emerging space industry, but that may have come at a painful price. A shocking new investigation by Reuters documents 600 workplace injuries and one death at Elon Musk’s rocket company, highlighting a dangerous disregard for safety practices for the sake of SpaceX’s ambitious goals.
In its report, Reuters talked to more than a dozen current and former employees and reviewed medical and worker compensation records. The records included reports of more than 100 workers suffering cuts or lacerations, 29 with broken bones or dislocations, 17 whose hands or fingers were “crushed,” and nine with head injuries, including one skull fracture, four concussions and one traumatic brain injury, according to Reuters. The reports also indicated five burns, five electrocutions, eight accidents that led to amputations, and seven eye injuries.
The SpaceX employees described the workplace as chaotic, and that the staff is often undertrained and overworked to the point where they are forced to skip safety procedures to meet the company’s aggressive deadlines. “Elon’s concept that SpaceX is on this mission to go to Mars as fast as possible and save humanity permeates every part of the company,” Tom Moline, a former SpaceX engineer, told Reuters. “The company justifies casting aside anything that could stand in the way of accomplishing that goal, including worker safety.”
SpaceX has also failed to report on workplace accidents to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and about two-thirds of the injuries Reuters uncovered took place during years when SpaceX did not submit its reports.
OSHA and California OSHA, a state-run workplace safety regulator, have fined SpaceX a total of $US50,836 for violations regarding one worker’s death and seven serious safety incidents. In response, SpaceX has routinely denied allegations that it was disregarding workers’ safety and pushed back on the agency’s findings.
SpaceX is currently focused on launching its Starship megarocket for a second time after its debut flight didn’t go so well. Starship’s inaugural launch ended in a fiery explosion and the rocket has remained grounded ever since pending a safety review. Despite its botched first flight, Musk continued to push for a second test flight within two months of its April launch.
SpaceX is in a rush to launch Starship as it is under contract to use a modified version of its rocket to land humans on the Moon as part of NASA’s upcoming Artemis missions. From there, Musk’s ultimate vision for his company is to land humans on Mars and build a colony on the Red Planet. The SpaceX CEO recently claimed that an uncrewed Starship could land on Mars within the next three to four years.
Musk speaks of his ambitious Mars plans as a way to save humanity and sustain our species beyond Earth, hence the sense of urgency. As a result, Musk’s execution of his space ambitions have leaned towards an aggressive schedule and unrealistic expectations.
SpaceX, therefore, doesn’t waste its time on safety regulations and instead urges that its workers are responsible for protecting themselves, according to the Reuters report. The report cites an incident from 2014 in which a SpaceX employee by the name of Lonnie LeBlanc died at a SpaceX facility in McGregor, Texas, while transporting foam insulation. LeBlanc had reportedly offered to sit on top of the insulation because there were no straps to hold down the cargo on the truck while on its way to the hangar.
Another incident took place in January 2022 when a part flew off during pressure testing of a Raptor V2 rocket engine, fracturing the skull of SpaceX employee Francisco Cabada, which resulted in him being in a coma. Employees familiar with the incident told Reuters that the part was discovered to have a flaw but it was not fixed before the testing.
“SpaceX’s idea of safety is: ‘We’ll let you decide what’s safe for you,’ which really means there was no accountability,” Travis Carson, a former Brownsville welder and production supervisor at SpaceX, told Reuters. “That’s a terrible approach to take in industrial environments.”
The Reuters report also highlighted Musk’s personal disregard to safety, with the CEO documented while waving around a flame thrower at the company’s site in Hawthorne and his request to paint over the safety yellow colour of machinery to change it to black or blue due to his aversion to bright colours.
SpaceX did not immediately respond to our request for comment.
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