Critics Continue Targeting Hon Hai Over Hazards of Dust

A group of protestors from SACOM (Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour) demonstrate outside the Foxconn annual general meeting (AGM) in Hong Kong on May 18, 2011. Foxconn is the trade name for Taiwan’s Hon Hai Precision Industries, one of Apple’s primary suppliers in China

A workers rights group that accused Hon Hai Precision Industry of neglecting a ventilation problem in its factories that may have contributed to the Chengdu explosion last week released video footage Tuesday of workers covered in silver-gray dust that the group says illustrates their earlier allegations against the giant electronics manufacturer.

Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, or Sacom, a Hong Kong-based group, asserts that the Hon Hai explosion could have been prevented if the company heeded earlier warnings about dust inhalation at its factories. It posted a video on YouTube filmed before the accident that showed a group of men who Sacom said work at Hon Hai’s Chengdu facilities with silver-colored dust on their face, hands and clothes.

Though Sacom’s warnings to Hon Hai, which also goes by the trade name Foxconn, didn’t mention dangers of deadly explosions, the group’s accusations did point to dust and ventilation issues that raise questions over whether the accident could have been prevented, and whether factory conditions in its other facilities may need to be corrected.

A Hon Hai spokesman on Monday accused Sacom of “seeking to capitalize on the tragic accident” misrepresenting the company’s “commitment to the health and safety of our employees.” In a statement Tuesday after the Sacom video was made public Hon Hai said that “while workers are provided with the necessary safety equipment,” the company “is always working to make improvements.” The company said that its polishing workshops have the highest concentration of aluminum dust, but the actual polishing work in those facilities is done by “high tech robots,” so employees only come into contact with product parts “after the polishing work has been carried out.” 

“We are addressing this challenge through improvements in workshop ventilation and the air-conditioning system and further enhancements to policies and practices,” the statement said. “Should the ongoing investigation identify any specific areas where enhancements could be made, we will not hesitate to immediately implement those measures.”

Experts agree that as far as explosion concerns go, industrial combustible dust is a common problem in China. Zhong Shengjun, associate professor at the Industrial Explosion Protection Institute of Northeastern University in Shenyang said that in theory, dust problems can be avoided, but that “current technology” hasn’t “fully resolved the problem” and it would take a considerable investment by manufacturers to try to  do so, potentially costing more than production equipment. Mr. Zhong said there were five polishing explosion accidents in China last year that resulted in several deaths. 

China and the U.S. are near equals when it comes to their contribution to global manufacturing. But the U.S. appears far more forthcoming in its documentation of industrial accidents attributed to combustible dust, and active about reducing the incidents.

A search of combustible dust accidents recorded by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration lists more than 100 accidents since 2002, including more than 10 deaths. That tally doesn’t pick up every incident. Notably not included: a 2008 explosion at an Imperial Sugar Co. plant in Georgia killed 14 people.  And over a longer period, far more have died.

China’s State Administration of Work Safety has warned about combustible dust. In fact, its most recent warning was posted to the administration’s website on May 5, not long before the Foxconn explosion.

China doesn’t ignore the fact that the dust has caused deaths but the work safety administration’s website appears to list only three incidents: Five people were killed and 22 injured in a Zhejiang province metallurgical works early in 2011; a February 2010 explosion of corn dust at Qinhuangdao Lihua Starch Co. killed 20 and injured 48; and, in 2007 another five people were killed in a Shanghai facility. 

Language in the Chinese government statements, including an almost identically worded one in March 2010, reads like a political campaign. They note which bureaus are involved in efforts to reduce the risk and say improvement needs to be made in educating manufacturers. The statements offer scant detail manufacturers might use to minimize the risks.

In English, various government and private websites around the world, including Osha’s, provide in-depth detail about how to reduce the likelihood of an accident, explaining how sparks can cause dust to ignite and offering pointers about what to do in the case of an explosion. Sacom said its video was taken in March, two months prior to the explosion, but at a different polishing plant in Chengdu than the site of the accident. The group, which hasn’t been inside of Hon Hai’s workshops, said the workers in the video were responsible for polishing iPad cases, and that the dust on their bodies “affirms Sacom’s criticisms that workers are working under adverse environment with poor ventilation and inadequate protective equipment for workers.”

“The tragedy can be averted if Foxconn and Apple have strictly complied with the local laws on work safety and implemented correction action plan afterwards,” Sacom said in a written statement. The video was later removed pending an edit that the group said would better protect the workers’ identities.

Geoffrey Crothall, communications director at another labor rights group, China Labour Bulletin, said the conditions shown in Sacom’s video appear to be “similar to those faced in gemstone processing and jewelry factories in southern China where workers have to cut and polish raw materials all day and are often covered in mineral dust.”

Mr. Crothall agreed with Sacom’s concerns about the workers’ health, adding that poor ventilation standards in factories throughout China have led to high rates of lung disease. “Lung disease is by far the most prevalent occupational disease in China, with more than 10,000 cases officially diagnosed each year, and there is obviously a danger that these Foxconn workers could be armed by breathing in aluminum dust over a prolonged period of time,” he said.

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