December 11, 2023

STORY: In the summer of 2021, Florentino Rios was working at SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rocket company.

Working about 25-feet off the ground, he signaled to the crane operator to stop moving.

But his hand signal was missed.

The operator tried to move a beam after it was fixed in place, causing a chain to snap and strike Rios in the face.

(Florentino Rios) “I couldn’t see anything anymore. So, I yelled to my friend, ‘I lost my eye, I lost my eye,’ and he didn’t answer me because he was also hit.”

Rios went to the hospital that night. Days later, doctors told him he had lost vision in the eye. He was now legally blind, and could no longer drive or work construction.

SpaceX, he says, should’ve equipped the team with walkie-talkies and better lighting at the site.

(Florentino Rios) “What I saw while doing this work at SpaceX is that it wasn’t safe enough. It wasn’t.”

Rios isn’t the only seriously injured SpaceX worker.

A Reuters investigation found the company has disregarded worker-safety regulations and standard practices for years.

Through government records and interviews, Reuters documented more than 600 injuries since 2014.

Many were serious or disabling. They included lacerations, broken bones, crushed hands and head injuries. Eight accidents led to amputations. One employee died in 2014.

Lonnie LeBlanc died from a head injury after being blown off a trailer by a gust of wind at the SpaceX facility in McGregor, Texas.

SpaceX did not respond to detailed questions from Reuters for this report.

The company has defended its safety practices in responses to government inspections.

It says it provides workers extensive safety training.

Reuters spoke to three dozen people with knowledge of SpaceX safety practices, including current or former employees.

They say its high injury rates reflect a chaotic workplace.

Under-trained and overtired staff routinely skipped basic safety procedures as they raced to meet Musk’s aggressive deadlines for space missions.

SpaceX takes the stance that workers are responsible for protecting themselves. That’s according to more than a dozen current and former employees, including a former senior executive.

Musk himself could appear cavalier about safety on visits to company sites.

Four employees said the CEO, on his visits to a California rocket factory, sometimes played with a novelty flamethrower that shoots a thick flame five or ten feet long.

He also discouraged workers from wearing safety yellow, because he hates bright colors.

Since Musk co-founded the rocket company in 2002, SpaceX has achieved major breakthroughs, including becoming the first private company to send humans into orbit.

It now employs about 13,000 people.

The more than 600 SpaceX injuries that Reuters documented represent only a portion of the total case count.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, known as OSHA started requiring companies to report their total number of injuries annually in 2016.

Six major SpaceX facilities across the U.S. failed to submit reports for many of those years.

Reuters reviewed OSHA violation records on SpaceX and found no agency sanctions for its data-reporting failures.

For violations it found following accidents, the agency levied only small fines.

In one case, SpaceX paid a $7,000 OSHA fine for violations resulting in a worker’s death.

OSHA said it has recently heightened scrutiny on all companies.

But the agency did not comment on its enforcement decisions regarding SpaceX.

Jordan Barab is a former deputy assistant secretary of OSHA.

“Pushing workers to do dangerous work, regardless of their knowledge that the work is dangerous, essentially shows that this company is putting its profits ahead of worker safety and putting its profits ahead of worker health and workers’ lives.”

After losing his eyesight, Rios sued SpaceX.

He alleged the company’s negligence caused the injury by failing to implement or follow worker-safety procedures.

The company, in court records, argued that Rios’ own negligence was to blame.

(Florentino Rios) “It’s a very sad thing because unfortunately, well, I’m the one who supports my children and it has totally changed everything for me, it’s too much. I feel incomplete because I used to be someone who didn’t like sitting around. I worked day and night to give my children what they needed. And now I can’t. Now I feel very sad because wherever I want to go, I need help.”