Sat, Jan 28, 2012 - Page 12 News List

The human cost built into an iPad

Workers assembling iPhones and iPads for companies including Foxconn Technology Group often labor in harsh conditions, according to employees inside those plants

By Charles Duhigg and David Barboza  /  NY Times News Service, New York

THE EXPLOSION

On the afternoon of the blast at the iPad plant, Lai Xiaodong telephoned his girlfriend, as he did every day. They had hoped to see each other that evening, but Lai’s manager said he had to work overtime, he told her.

He had been promoted quickly at Foxconn, and after just a few months was in charge of a team that maintained the machines that polished iPad cases.

The morning of the explosion, Lai rode his bicycle to work. The iPad had gone on sale just weeks earlier, and workers were told thousands of cases needed to be polished each day. The factory was frantic, employees said. Rows of machines buffed cases as masked employees pushed buttons. Large air ducts hovered over each station, but they could not keep up with the three lines of machines polishing nonstop. Aluminum dust was everywhere.

Dust is a known safety hazard. In 2003, an aluminum dust explosion in Indiana destroyed a wheel factory and killed a worker. In 2008, agricultural dust inside a sugar factory in Georgia caused an explosion that killed 14.

Two hours into Lai’s second shift, the building started to shake, as if an earthquake was under way. There was a series of blasts, plant workers said. The toll would eventually count four dead, 18 injured.

At the hospital, Lai’s girlfriend saw that his skin was almost completely burned away.

Eventually, his family arrived. Over 90 percent of his body had been seared.

After Lai died, a team of Foxconn workers drove to Lai’s hometown and delivered a box of ashes. The company later wired a check for about US$150,000.

Foxconn, in a statement, said that at the time of the explosion the Chengdu plant was in compliance with all relevant laws and regulations, and “after ensuring that the families of the deceased employees were given the support they required, we ensured that all of the injured employees were given the highest quality medical care.” After the explosion, the company added, Foxconn immediately halted work in all polishing workshops, and later improved ventilation and dust disposal, and adopted technologies to enhance worker safety.

In its most recent supplier responsibility report, Apple wrote that after the explosion, the company contacted “the foremost experts in process safety” and assembled a team to investigate and make recommendations to prevent future accidents.

Last month, however, seven months after the blast that killed Lai, another iPad factory exploded, this one in Shanghai. Once again, aluminum dust was the cause, according to interviews and Apple’s most recent supplier responsibility report. That blast injured 59 workers, with 23 hospitalized.

In its most recent supplier responsibility report, Apple wrote that while the two explosions both involved combustible aluminum dust, the causes of the blasts were different. The company declined, however, to provide details. The report added that Apple had now audited all suppliers polishing aluminum products and had put stronger precautions in place.

For Lai’s family, questions remain.

“We’re really not sure why he died,” said Lai’s mother, standing beside a shrine she built near their home. “We don’t understand what happened.”

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