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SpaceX Doesn’t Do Safety


A video posted widely online shows Elon Musk playing with a novelty flamethrower
produced by his tunneling firm, the Boring Company.

Elon Musk is hardly a fan of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and its regulations. Reuters investigated the extent of his non-fanhood. It’s horrifying.

There is a certain strain of masculine posturing that the has no need of safety regulations. Or that the posturer’s mission is so urgent and important that details like safety can be ignored. It can be exhilirating. Until you die. I’m sure that Harry Daghlian and Louis Slotin thought they were cool, the way they handled that screwdriver.

That posturing can suck in those who don’t know. Not all safety regs are obvious unless people have given that area a lot of thought. If they don’t, they die or are maimed.

Elon Musk thinks of himself as a cool guy with an urgent mission to colonize Mars. The United States government, under Republican pressure, has outsourced a big chunk of its space program to his company SpaceX.

Reuters found 600 injuries in public reports from SpaceX at facilities in Hawthorne, California; Cape Canaveral, Florida; Redmond, Washington; Brownsville and McGregor, Texas; and at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. One of those injuries was fatal, another put a man in a coma, and others involved smashed limbs and other serious injuries. Most likely there are more. SpaceX has failed to file OSHA reports for most of the years since 2016.

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.

Safety equipment and training seem to be lacking, along with a safety culture. When Musk has visited the facilities, he has played with a flamethrower and insisted that bright yellow safety warnings and clothing be removed because he doesn’t like bright colors. The point of bright colors, of course, is to draw attention to a hazard or the presence of a human being.

Each report in the Reuters article describes violations of a corporate safety culture, of OSHA regs, and common sense. Most of the incidents involve multiple violations. Excuses from SpaceX push responsibility for safety down to the workers.

OSHA told Reuters that employers, not designated employees, are responsible for ensuring a hazard-free workplace.

Travis Carson, a former Brownsville welder and production supervisor, said SpaceX generally left staffers in charge of their own safety, with little training or oversight.

“SpaceX’s idea of safety is: ‘We’ll let you decide what’s safe for you,’ which really means there was no accountability,” said Carson, who has worked for more than two decades in dangerous jobs such as building submarines. “That’s a terrible approach to take in industrial environments.”

Building rockets is inherently dangerous: flammable and explosive propellants, handling large pieces of metal and other components, for just two examples. Many of SpaceX’s violations are obvious and inexcusable: no respirators for welders, no tiedowns for transporting materials, pressure for speed, lack of sleep, accidents with cranes, poorly planned tests. It’s all been seen before and regs and good practices developed to protect workers.

The insistence on government outsourcing has transferred much of the US space program to SpaceX. SpaceX claims to have brought down the cost of rocketry. Part of that reduction is in removing safety protections for its workers. But now NASA is dependent on SpaceX. This is clearly a problem Congress should look into, but the Republicans have jammed that possibility.

Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner

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