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Worker injuries at SpaceX soar in Elon Musk's rush to Mars, Reuters reports

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

On Friday, SpaceX is set to launch the second test flight of the most powerful rocket ever built. It's called Starship, and it's part of a plan to put humans on Mars, ultimately, and to help NASA return humans to the moon for the first time in half a century.

Those are ambitious plans, but employees at the company owned by Elon Musk face work conditions that are far more dangerous than elsewhere in the industry. That is according to an investigation by Reuters reporter Marisa Taylor, who is with us now in our studios here in Washington, D.C. Good morning.

MARISA TAYLOR: Good morning.

MARTIN: So how much riskier is it to work at SpaceX than other companies in the same business?

TAYLOR: Well, in our investigation, we looked at worker safety, injury rates and compared it to the rest of the industry. And we found that at certain facilities, it was much higher. Brownsville, for example, where they're launching there tomorrow, it's expected, is six times higher than the average.

MARTIN: Are there any particular stories or cases that stood out to you in your reporting?

TAYLOR: We found that many workers were experiencing injuries. We documented 600 injuries from 2014. And we found many of them were very serious. One of them - a worker was hit by a component that malfunctioned and hit him in the head, and he is still in the coma right now to this day.

MARTIN: Oh, my goodness (ph). So what are the factors that contribute to these high injury rates, especially when you compare them to other people in the same field? Obviously, it's a very specific line of work, but why?

TAYLOR: What's going on is that at this point, they're doing a lot of manufacturing work. It's a much more industrial work than has ever actually been done in this private industry now. And they're doing things like pushing to manufacture rockets faster and cheaper. And as a result, workers told us that this - these deadlines, this push and rush has caused many unnecessary injuries.

MARTIN: You know, one of the things that stood out to me in your report was that, for years, SpaceX did not report injury numbers to OSHA - that is the federal agency that is tasked with monitoring worker safety - but they're required to do so. So how were they able to get away with not reporting?

TAYLOR: It's a good question. We actually asked OSHA, which is the agency in charge of worker safety, directly about this, and they did not respond to our questions. It is something that was required beginning in 2016. And for many years, they disregarded it. And in the end, when they began to start reporting their injuries to OSHA as required, indeed, they found that the injury rates were much higher.

MARTIN: How has SpaceX responded to your findings, if at all?

TAYLOR: We've put our questions and described our findings to SpaceX, and they never responded.

MARTIN: Not at all?

TAYLOR: Not at all.

MARTIN: And what about any elected officials or people who represent these workers who are - who, you know, presumably are constituents of somebody? Have they taken notice of this?

TAYLOR: So far we haven't heard from any elected officials.

MARTIN: That is Reuters investigative reporter Marisa Taylor. Marisa, thank you so much for sharing this reporting with us.

TAYLOR: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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