Explosion at Apple Supplier Caused by Dust

2011-05-24 | DAVID BARBOZA

SHANGHAI - An explosion that killed three workers and injured 15 others last week at a Chinese factory that supplies products to Apple was caused by combustible dust, according to a preliminary investigation by the local authorities.

The explosion, which occurred Friday in the southwestern city of Chengdu, led to the partial shutdown of a plant operated by Foxconn, one of the worlds biggest contract electronics makers and a major supplier to companies like Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Sony and Apple.

The shutdown created worries about supply disruptions for some Apple products, including the iPad, which experts say was being produced at the Chengdu plant. The aftermath of the explosion is also the latest problem facing Foxconn, which last year experienced a rash of worker suicides at several of its Chinese facilities. Apple and Foxconn, a division of the Hon Hai Group of Taiwan, issued statements after the explosion last Friday saying that they regretted the tragic accident and that the cause of the blast was under investigation.

City officials in Chengdu said the explosion had been caused bycombustible dust in an air duct at a polishing workshop.

Foxconn and Apple each declined to say which products were being produced at the Chengdu facility. Foxconn is one of Apple's biggest suppliers, and the Chengdu complex is a relatively new factory, with 80,000 employees.

IHS iSuppli, a research group, said Monday that the explosion at the Chengdu facility could result in the loss of production of 500,000 Apple iPad 2 tablet computers during the second quarter of this year. IHS iSuppli said that while most of the iPad 2 production was taking place at another Foxconn plant, in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, that factory might not be able to compensate for the disruption in Chengdu.

Foxconn has been moving aggressively over the last year to expand its operations in central and western China to keep up with production demands and to recruit more workers from the poorer inland provinces.

Apple has a longstanding relationship with Foxconn, which struggled last year to cope with a rash of worker suicides. Some labor rights groups say they believe the suicides were the result of harsh working conditions at Foxconn. Foxconn, however, insists it treats its workers well. After the suicides, it hired counselors and installed large nets on some buildings to prevent suicides.

Apple later praised Foxconn's efforts, saying the company had definitely saved lives. But Apple, like other global companies, has to deal with continuing problems that crop up in China's huge factory zones. Apple, which has a strict code of conduct for its global suppliers, audits plants every year and publishes its findings. Last year, Apple said its audits found that nine supplier factories in China had hired workers below the age of 16, the legal working age, and that other plants had falsified audit materials and even coached workers on how to respond to questions from auditors. Apple also said in its report that at a supplier factory in the city of Suzhou, 137 workers were exposed last year to the toxic chemical n-hexane, causing adverse health effects. The Apple Supplier Responsibility Report, however, did not specifically name Foxconn for labor violations.

Some labor rights activists say Foxconns working conditions are poor and that Apple and Foxconn have failed to address complaints by workers.On Monday, a Hong Kong-based labor rights group called Students and & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior said that it had noted a problem with aluminum dust in Foxconns Chengdu plant last March, when it issued a report on the company working conditions there. The group said workers at the Chengdu factory had complained this year that ventilation of the department is poor. Workers polish the iPad cases to make them shiny. In the process, there is lots of aluminum dust floating in the air. Workers always breathe in aluminum dust even though they put on masks. When workers take off their cotton gloves, their hands are covered with aluminum dust.

After the statement was released by the group, Foxconn issued its own statement saying it was unfortunate that the Hong Kong group was seeking to capitalize on the tragic accident with a statement that misrepresented Foxconns commitment to the health and safety of our employees. 


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