A report on Monday from NPR has provided new insights into an explosion that injured 59 workers in an iPad plant last December. The incident occurred at a plant run by Pegatron subsidiary Riteng Computer Accessory Company, which manufactures back panel parts for Apple’s iPad tablet, among other products. Last week, NPR met with 25 workers who were hospitalized from the blast, all of whom criticized the plant’s safety and said Apple had inspected it just hours before the explosion. “I saw a fireball coming towards me,” said He Wenwen, an employee who was calibrating his aluminum polishing machine when the explosion hit. “I lost consciousness for a few seconds. Later, when I opened my eyes, I saw dense smoke and fire everywhere. I felt scared, really scared. I could hear people crying and screaming.” Read on for more.
The upper half of Wenwen’s face was so badly burned that even more than two months later, the 24-year-old still has a bright red mask-like mark across it. The disfigurement has left him full of worry, fearing that it will make it harder to find a wife. “For a young man like me, still single…this injury has a real impact,” he said in an interview with NPR. “I often quarrel with my girlfriend about it.”
After investigating the explosion, Apple blamed it on a buildup of dust, fueled by aluminum particles from the polishing process. Even though each machine had an exhaust pipe, Wenwen said that dust was still a constant problem in the factory. “We wore face masks, very thick masks,” he said. “But when we took them off, our nostrils were full of dust. The air in the factory looked a bit like fog.”
Just seven months earlier, a dust explosion ripped through a Foxconn plant — which also manufactures Apple tablets — killing four workers and injuring another fifteen. Zhang Qing, another Pegatron employee, said the company never told its employees about the earlier explosion or that dust was even combustible. “When we first got here, they never told us this could explode,” Quing said. The day of the Pegatron explosion, managers told Wenwen, Qing and other employees to clean up dust because Apple inspectors were visiting. “They wore white gloves to check if there was dust,” said Liu Hengchao, another injured plant worker. “There certainly has to be dust.”
Hengacao said the company informed its workers not to talk to Apple’s inspectors, who only spent 10 minutes in the area. If he were allowed to speak, however, Hengacao says he would have had some words for the inspectors. “They could improve the environment somewhat, because the environment is too terrible,” he said.
Apple previously claimed that the company had established new requirements for handling combustible dust, including regular testing of ventilation systems’ air flow. “Apple takes working conditions very seriously and we have for a very long time,” Tim Cook said at an event last month. In addition, the Cupertino-based company initiated an audit of its manufacturing partners’ facilities by the Fair Labor Association.
All 25 injured employees, who continue to receive treatment for their injuries, said no one from Apple has ever contacted them about the explosion. After NPR contacted Apple, however, workers said they finally started receiving calls from the company to check on their health and make sure they had received the proper medical compensation — equal to roughly $800 per person.