- Elon Musk discouraged employees from wearing yellow-colored safety clothes, SpaceX workers have said
- Musk doesn’t like bright colors and has even had yellow machinery painted black or blue while yellow safety tape has been replaced with red
- SpaceX has had at least 600 worker injuries since 2014 with few records documenting each incident
Workers at SpaceX have alleged how founder Elon Musk takes takes a lax approach when it comes to safety and has even discouraged the use of yellow-colored safety clothing, citing his dislike for bright colors.
Three former supervisors at SpaceX explained how Musk even had machinery painted in industrial safety yellow repainted in black or blue based on his aesthetic preferences.
Some workers were also reportedly instructed not to wear yellow safety vests when Musk was present.
Managers also sometimes told workers to replace yellow safety tape with red, the supervisors said.
A investigation by Reuters revealed SpaceX had at least 600 unreported worker injuries since 2014, including eight incidents resulting in amputations.
Musk himself at times appeared cavalier about safety on visits to SpaceX sites: Four employees said he sometimes played with a novelty flamethrower.
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.
Last year, an open letter penned by some SpaceX employees criticized Musk’s behavior as a ‘source of distraction and embarrassment.’
Musk is known for running his companies with a high level of intensity, occasionally implementing work sprints and reportedly sleeping on the factory floor at Tesla.
At one incident at Musk’s SpaceX facility in McGregor, Texas, Lonnie LeBlanc and his co-workers realized they had a problem.
They needed to transport foam insulation to the rocket company’s main hangar but had no straps to secure the cargo.
LeBlanc, a relatively new employee, offered a solution to hold down the load: He sat on it.
After the truck drove away, a gust of wind blew LeBlanc and the insulation off the trailer, slamming him headfirst into the pavement.
LeBlanc, 38, who had retired nine months earlier from the U.S. Marine Corps. He was pronounced dead from head trauma at the scene.
Federal inspectors with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) later determined that SpaceX had failed to protect LeBlanc from a clear hazard, noting the gravity and severity of the violation.
LeBlanc’s co-workers told OSHA that SpaceX had no convenient access to tie-downs and no process or oversight for handling such loads. SpaceX acknowledged the problems, and the agency instructed the company to make seven specific safety improvements, including more training and equipment, according to the inspection report.
Many of the 600 documented injuries over the last nine years have been serious or disabling.
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.
The cases also included five burns, five electrocutions, eight accidents that led to amputations, 12 injuries involving multiple unspecified body parts, and seven workers with eye injuries.
Others were relatively minor, including more than 170 reports of strains or sprains.
The more than 600 SpaceX injuries represent only a portion of the total case count.
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.
The 600-plus injuries were calculated by examining court documents in worker lawsuits, employee medical records, state workers´ compensation claims and emergency-call records.
Another severe injury occurred in January 2022 following a series of safety failures at SpaceX, according to eight former SpaceX employees familiar with the accident.
In that case, a part flew off during pressure testing of a Raptor V2 rocket engine – fracturing the skull of employee Francisco Cabada and putting him in a coma.
Senior managers at the Hawthorne, California site had been repeatedly warned about the dangers of rushing the engine’s development, along with inadequate training of staff and testing of components.
The part that failed and struck the worker had a flaw that was discovered, but not fixed, before the testing, two of the employees said.
Cabada’s wife said 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.’
Current and former employees said such 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.
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 fired after raising workplace complaints.
‘The company justifies casting aside anything that could stand in the way of accomplishing that goal, including worker safety.’
SpaceX´s poor safety record underscores the perils of working in the lightly regulated and fast-expanding U.S. space industry.
SpaceX has achieved major breakthroughs. It was the first private company to send humans into orbit.
Its Starlink unit is now the world’s largest satellite operator. Competitors including Jeff Bezos´ Blue Origin have struggled to keep pace with SpaceX´s reusable rockets, which have slashed launch costs.
Some SpaceX engineers say they relish collaborating with creative coworkers in an environment with little bureaucracy.
The 2022 injury rate at the company’s manufacturing-and-launch facility near Brownsville, Texas, was 4.8 injuries or illnesses per 100 workers – six times higher than the space-industry average of 0.8.
Its rocket-testing facility in McGregor, Texas, where LeBlanc died, had a rate of 2.7, more than three times the average.
The rate at its Hawthorne, California, manufacturing facility was more than double the average at 1.8 injuries per 100 workers.
The company’s facility in Redmond, Washington, had a rate of 0.8, the same as the industry average.