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Exclusive-Musk's SpaceX fined after 'near amputation' suffered by worker, records show

FILE PHOTO: Workers in SpaceX in Brownsville, Texas

By Marisa Taylor

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. worker safety officials fined Elon Musk’s SpaceX $3,600 this month after an accident at its site in Washington state led to a “near amputation,” according to inspection records reviewed by Reuters.

A Reuters investigation late last year found that Musk’s rocket company disregarded worker-safety regulations and standard practices at its facilities nationwide. Through interviews and government records, the news organization documented at least 600 previously unreported injuries of SpaceX workers since 2014.

SpaceX has not responded to Reuters’ questions about any of the incidents, including the death of one worker and the injury of another who remains in a coma after his skull was fractured during a 2022 rocket engine malfunction. The company also did not respond to a request for comment about the new safety fine.

Inspectors from Washington state’s Department of Labor and Industries discovered new safety violations at the company’s Redmond, Washington, site last December, in a visit prompted by worker complaints, according to state inspection records obtained by Reuters under an open records request. An agency spokesperson said that SpaceX can still appeal the decision.

The inspectors concluded the site lacked a “thorough safety program,” adequate communication of work rules, and a system to “correct violations,” the records said. The “near amputation,” as inspectors called it, occurred after a roll of material fell and crushed a worker’s foot.

Managers at SpaceX told the state inspectors that it was a one-time incident and the problem was fixed.

Inspectors, however, found that employees were not required to wear steel-toe shoes, even though the rolls of materials they had to load into a machine had gotten heavier - increasing from about 80 pounds to 300 pounds (36 kg to 136 kg) each. The violation was described as serious given the risk of injury, an agency spokesperson said.

One worker at the site told inspectors that “safety can get overlooked” because the company’s “goal is to make as much as we can in a short amount of time,” according to the records. The injured worker said the machine where the rolls were loaded “had been deliberately set up incorrectly for the purpose of increasing the production rate during the material loading phase.”

The worker, who was not identified in the report, told inspectors that the matter had not been addressed and that safety officials at the company do not “have the reading comprehension nor the overall competency to implement a safety plan at the Redmond site.”

In a separate incident reported less than 24 hours later, an unidentified Redmond employee was hospitalized for a broken ankle after they jumped off a dock during a fire alarm, which inspectors said the company could not have foreseen. SpaceX was not fined as a result.

The Reuters report last year found that worker safety agencies fined the billionaire’s rocket company a total of $50,836 for various violations in the last decade.

SpaceX’s history of injuries and regulatory run-ins underscores the limits of worker-safety regulation. Fines are capped by law and pose little deterrent for major companies, according to experts in U.S. worker safety. Federal and state regulators also suffer from chronic understaffing of inspectors, they said.

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which has paid SpaceX more than $11.8 billion as a private space contractor, did not respond to questions about the matter. The space agency has repeatedly declined to comment on the company’s safety record, saying only that the agency has the option of enforcing contract provisions that require SpaceX to “have a robust and effective safety program and culture.”

Last month, the wife of the worker who is in a coma after his skull was fractured filed a negligence lawsuit against the company. NASA and SpaceX have not commented on that complaint.

(Reporting by Marisa Taylor in Washington; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Matthew Lewis)