One windy night at Elon 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 blew LeBlanc and the insulation off the trailer, slamming him headfirst into the pavement. LeBlanc, 38, 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.
It was hardly the last serious accident at SpaceX. Since LeBlanc’s death in June 2014, which hasn’t been previously reported, Musk’s rocket company has disregarded worker-safety regulations and standard practices at its inherently dangerous rocket and satellite facilities nationwide, with workers paying a heavy price, a Reuters investigation found. Through interviews and government records, the news organization documented at least 600 injuries of SpaceX workers since 2014.
Many were serious or disabling. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.”
One severe injury in January 2022 resulted from a series of safety failures that illustrate systemic problems at SpaceX, acco