Worker injuries rise at SpaceX as Elon Musk races to complete his mission to Mars

Worker injuries rise at SpaceX as Elon Musk races to complete his mission to Mars

Elon Musk has launched an ambitious mission to get a manned flight to Mars as fast as possible. The billionaire says he wants to colonize the Red Planet so humanity is “not a single-planet species.”

But on Earth, employees of Musk’s SpaceX company say they’re paying the price for the billionaire’s obsession with colonizing space. Reuters, in an investigative report based on interviews and government records, documented that since 2014 there were “at least 600 previously unreported injuries at Musk’s rocket company: crushed limbs, amputations, electrocutions, head and eye wounds and one death.” SpaceX “disregarded worker-safety regulations and standard practices at its inherently dangerous rocket and satellite facilities nationwide,” according to Reuters.

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Reuters said SpaceX did not respond to questions and a detailed description of the investigation’s findings. It said the number of injuries might actually be higher because SpaceX failed to submit reports to OSHA as required for some years. 

Reuters documents represent only a portion of the total case count, a figure that is not publicly available. OSHA has required companies to report their total number of injuries annually since 2016, but SpaceX facilities failed to submit reports for most of those years. 

There are also worker-safety issues at Musk’s electric vehicle company Tesla. Forbes, in a June 2022 story, said Tesla “continues to lead all carmakers in workplace safety violations, racking up more infractions and fines in the past three years than all other automakers in the U.S. combined.”

Forbes wrote:

Since March 1, 2019, when Forbes reported that Musk’s company had been slapped with more violations and fines under Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules than any other auto company in the U.S., Tesla has been cited 29 more times for infractions at its U.S. facilities, including 22 at manufacturing operations in California and Nevada. […]

By comparison, 14 other automakers building cars and trucks in the U.S.—including General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Stellantis, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Kia, Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes-Benz—have a combined 21 safety violations, according to the OSHA database.

“His goal seems to be to churn out as many cars as he possibly can, the condition of the employees be damned,” said Sam Abuelsamid, an auto industry analyst for Guidehouse, senior contributor to Forbes and former Ford engineer. 

Current and former SpaceX employees told Reuters that the injuries “reflect a chaotic workplace where often under-trained and overtired staff routinely skipped basic safety procedures as they raced to meet Musk’s aggressive deadlines for space missions.”

SpaceX, founded by Musk more than two decades ago, takes the stance that workers are responsible for protecting themselves, according to more than a dozen current and former employees, including a former senior executive.

Musk himself at times appeared cavalier about safety on visits to SpaceX sites: Four employees said he sometimes played with a novelty flamethrower and discouraged workers from wearing safety yellow because he dislikes bright colors.

Two of the most serious incidents that Reuters discovered were quite concerning. In June 2014,  workers were trying to transport foam insulation to the main hangar at the SpaceX facility in McGregor, Texas, but they had no straps to secure the cargo. Lonnie LeBlanc, 38, who had been discharged from the Marines nine months earlier, agreed to sit on the truck when a gust of wind blew the insulation off the trailer truck, slamming him headfirst into the ground. He was pronounced dead from head trauma at the scene.

Reuters said federal inspectors with OSHA “later determined that SpaceX had failed to protect LeBlanc from a clear hazard.” The OSHA inspection report ordered the company to make seven specific safety improvements, including more training. OSHA came to what it called an informal settlement with the company that allowed SpaceX to pay a $7,000 fine.

In January 2022, a part flew off during pressure testing of a Raptor V2 rocket engine at SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California, site, fracturing the skull of worker Francisco Cabada, the father of three young children. His family told Reuters that he remains in a coma with a hole in his skull. Sources told Reuters that senior managers failed to heed warnings about the dangers of rushing to test the new engine and staff members were inadequately trained. Cabada’s wife, Ydy, and the family’s lawyer, Michael Sanchez, both said SpaceX hasn’t responded to their inquiries.

CalOSHA fined SpaceX $18,475 for the violation that resulted in Cabada’s skull fracture. SpaceX unsuccessfully appealed the fine, asking that it be reduced to $475 because the violation should not have been classified as “serious.” Reuters wrote:

The lax safety culture, more than a dozen current and former employees said, stems in part from Musk’s disdain for perceived bureaucracy and a belief inside SpaceX that it’s leading an urgent quest to create a refuge in space from a dying Earth.

“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,” said Tom Moline, a former SpaceX senior avionics engineer who was among a group of employees fired after raising workplace complaints. “The company justifies casting aside anything that could stand in the way of accomplishing that goal, including worker safety.”

Cabada’s wife told Reuters the company has ignored the family’s attempts to find out why he wasn’t protected. “It would have been nice to get a call from Elon Musk,” Ydy Cabada said. “But I guess workers are just disposable to them.”

Reuters found that injury rates that were reported from three major SpaceX facilities far exceeded the industry average of 0.8 injuries per 100 workers for 2022. The 2022 injury rate for SpaceX’s facility near Brownsville, Texas, was 4.8 injuries or illnesses per 100 workers—six times higher than the space-industry average; its facility in McGregor, Texas, had a rate of 2.7, more than three times the average, and its manufacturing facility in Hawthorne, California, had a rate of 1.8 injuries per 100 workers.

SpaceX has told state and federal regulators that the company shouldn’t be held responsible for such injuries because it provides extensive safety training and accountability should fall instead on teams of employees known as “responsible engineers,” with little training or oversight.

Travis Carson, a former Brownsville welder and production supervisor, told Reuters that “SpaceX’s idea of of safety is: ‘We’ll let you decide what’s safe for you,’ which really means there was no accountability.”

And then there’s more on that flamethrower, Reuters wrote:

Four SpaceX employees told Reuters they were disturbed by Musk’s habit of playing with a flamethrower when he visited the SpaceX site in Hawthorne. The device was marketed to the public in 2018 as a $500 novelty item by Musk’s tunnel-building firm, the Boring Company. Videos posted online show it can shoot a thick flame more than five feet long. Boring later renamed the device the “Not-A-Flamethrower” amid reports of confiscations by authorities.

For years, Musk and his deputies found it “hilarious” to wave the flamethrower around, firing it near other people and giggling “like they were in middle school,” one engineer said. Musk tweeted in 2018 that the flamethrower was “guaranteed to liven up any party!” At SpaceX, Musk played with the device in close-quarters office settings, said the engineer, who at one point feared Musk would set someone’s hair on fire.

At the end of the day, it seems like it’s all a game for Musk. Too bad he has actual employees whose lives and livelihoods depend on him.

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