"Among the three factories, occupational health and safety issues in Chengdu are alarming."
That passage is from a report (PDF) released by the Hong Kong-based group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) two weeks before Friday's explosion at Foxconn's Chengdu plant that killed two workers and injured more than a dozen others.
SACOM researchers visited Foxconn plants in Chengdu, where iPads are produced; in Chongqing, a smaller facility making mostly HP products; and Foxconn's huge campus in Shenzhen, where half a million workers assemble a variety of computers, mobile phones, and additional products for Apple, HP, Nokia, Dell, and others. The researchers claim to have observed a number of problems at the Chengdu facilities in particular:
Workers do not have adequate training on usage of chemicals and do not have regular on-post health examinations. A number of interviewees even complain they suffer from allergy, but the management does not probe into the adverse health impacts of workers. Workers also highlight the problem of poor ventilation and inadequate personal protective equipment.
While SACOM notes the lack of ventilation as a possible threat to workers' respiratory health, it appears that it may also have been a contributing factor to Friday's explosion, which reportedly was centered in the "polishing" section of Foxconn's facilities.
Chinese media in Chengdu are reporting that the explosion and resulting fire was caused by the accidental ignition of magnesium dust, perhaps by a spark from the air conditioning system or lightning. If that's true, it's consistent with conditions described in the SACOM report:
Workers in the polishing department also complain that the department is full of aluminium dust. Even though they have worn gloves, their hands are still covered by dust and so is their face and clothes. Some workers comment that ventilation on the shop floor should be improved.
Both aluminum and magnesium are commonly used ingredients in industrial polish--magnesium is a highly flammable metal used in fireworks, flares, and flash powder. A buildup of such dust due to improper ventilation could have created dangerous conditions.
The SACOM report details a number of other concerns, including deceptive hiring practices, health problems from interaction with dangerous chemicals, and overcrowded worker dormitories.
When the report was initially released earlier this month, Foxconn told PCWorld that the report was inaccurate and that the company had taken measures to improve safety: "Those initiatives, together with actions we have taken to ensure that we are paying the highest wages in our industry in each location where we operate, have been well-received by our employees and the numbers speak for themselves, lives have been saved and employee retention is at an all-time high," Foxconn said.
CNET has requested additional comment from Foxconn, but no one was immediately available to respond.
Apple had not replied to a request for comment by publication time. Yesterday, the company provided a statement about the explosions to AllThingsD, saying Apple was "working closely with Foxconn to understand what caused this terrible event."
In its Supplier Responsibility 2011 Progress Report published earlier this year, Apple said, in regard to workers having been exposed to toxic chemicals at a Wintek plant in Suzhou, that it was working to improve "poor management systems for Environmental Health and Safety." And in the same report the company said that in response to a series of suicides at Foxconn's Shenzhen factory, Apple had asked for an independent review of conditions by suicide prevention experts.
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