The Shady Dust Explosions at the Apple Factories

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Speaking with workers injured in a dust explosion last December at a Chinese factory where Apple products are manufactured, NPR uncovers the careless way these companies dealt with the problem. Dust explosions have hit two separate Chinese factories where Apple products are manufactured in the last 12 months, one at Foxconn last May and another in Shanghai owned by another company. These types of explosions can happen in any manufacturing plant, NPR notes, but these situations played out in particularly unfortunate ways, mostly due to the way it was handled from above. 

This plant didn't go out of its way to prevent this type of accident from happening. Neither the facilities nor the workers were prepared at all. "When we first got here, they never told us this could explode," Zhang Qing told NPR's Morning Edition. But, dust was a clear issue. Zhang describes the air as "a bit like fog" and told NPR that the vacuuming system the factory had in place didn't work very well. Explosions like that happen because dust build-up reacts with materials in the plant, in this case, the aluminum casing of Apple's iPad. 

The Chinese overlords aren't the only ones to blame, Apple had done a shoddy inspection job at the plant before the blast. Beforehand, workers were told to clean up the dust. And, when the iPad maker came through to ensure safe working conditions, workers could not talk to the inspectors. These inspections organizations apparently know that factories put on shows for these kinds of walk through check-ins. Guess Apple's people aren't too perceptive, or perhaps ignore, the real issues beneath the factory's veneer of order? Either way, they missed this real issue.

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Workers were putting together Apple's iPad 2, whose material ignited the explosion. Generally aluminum isn't the most dangerous of materials, with wood ranking higher. But the type Apple uses presents particular problems. "If it's really fine, aluminum we know that's capable of creating quite a nasty explosion or fireball, because it has a very high flame temperature," Bob Zalosh, who has studied these kinds of explosions since 1975, told NPR. 

Apple, faced with a series of big exposés on its manufacturing processes, has sent independent inspectors into its Foxconn plants. So far these inspections have revealed "first class facilities," in the words of the Fair Labor Association's Auret van Heerden. But, it's hard to tell what's show and what's real progress. 

In related news: The pre-order stock of Apple's new iPad has already sold out, less than a week after the announcement. It has been about 8 weeks since hundreds threatened mass suicide at Foxconn. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.