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(Reuters) - U.S. vehicle safety regulators want to find whistleblowers with knowledge “of possible defects or any wrongdoing” by Takata Corp, stepping up pressure on the air bag maker whose products are linked to five deaths and dozens of injuries.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) told Reuters it was urging potential informants to call its hotline at 1-888-327-4236, promising legal protection.
"We encourage all individuals with information about the manufacture or testing of Takata air bag inflators, or who have knowledge of possible defects or any wrongdoing by the company, to make this information available to NHTSA," agency spokesman Gordon Trowbridge said.
Six former Takata employees interviewed by Reuters said they were asked to hide or alter data that showed certain parts and materials did not meet Takata’s specifications or indicated potential issues with key components such as inflators and cushions.
Two of these employees said they witnessed others hiding, altering or ignoring unfavorable test results.
Company officials last year testified at two U.S. congressional hearings, and the Japanese safety equipment maker remains the subject of at least two federal investigations and the target of dozens of lawsuits.
Asked for a comment, the company said in a statement: "Takata has a deep commitment to honesty and integrity. Since our founding in 1933, we have worked tirelessly to develop innovative and high-quality products that exceed our customers' expectations, save lives and prevent injuries. Our number one priority is the safety of the traveling public."
It added: "We are committed to working with NHTSA and our automotive customers to ensure the safety of the driving public.”
The company last year formed a quality assurance panel headed by former U.S. Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner "to conduct a comprehensive review to ensure Takata's current manufacturing procedures meet best practices in the production of safe inflators."
Most former Takata employees who spoke with Reuters did not want to be named while discussing incidents and situations of a sensitive nature. But they related similar or shared experiences at Takata facilities in Washington, Georgia, Michigan and North Carolina.
Two former Takata employees, Mark Lillie and Michael Britton, have spoken to the New York Times, and Lillie also spoke to congressional investigators, about their concerns with the safety of propellant manufactured in a Takata facility in Moses Lake, Wash., and used to create the gas that inflates air bags in case of a crash.
In interviews with Reuters, Lillie, a chemical engineer who is now retired and living in New Mexico, disclosed new information, saying he left the company before it began manufacturing a new, more volatile type of chemical propellant, ammonium nitrate. Lillie said some Takata engineers thought the material was not thoroughly tested to make sure it was safe. He left the company in 1999.
“I literally said if we go forward with this, someone will be killed,” Lillie told Reuters. “I couldn’t in good faith pump this stuff out believing that it was unsafe to put in front of a passenger in a car.”
Ammonium nitrate was the principal propellant chemical used in hundreds of millions of Takata inflators made since 2000, including those installed in more than 24 million cars recalled in the United States, Japan, China and other global markets.
Britton described an incident in the late 1990s where a test batch of experimental propellant that had not been validated by Britton's technical group was used without his knowledge in production because the company was running out of approved material.
The experimental batch had not been sufficiently tested to see if it would remain stable over the expected life of the vehicle’s air bags, but it was used in inflators that wound up in customers’ cars, Britton said, adding that he was not able to get the inflators recalled from the customer.
Britton, in an email on Thursday, said investigators from NHTSA and the Department of Justice have not contacted him. Lillie said Thursday he has not been contacted by federal officials, either.
Takata did not address specific allegations made by Lillie, Britton or other former employees.
Legal experts interviewed by Reuters said federal prosecutors could be examining a number of issues at Takata. A provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act prohibits destruction or alteration of documents with the intent of impeding an investigation, "even though one hasn't started," said Peter Henning, a professor at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit.
Editing by Joe White and Tomasz Janowski