Foxconn working conditions were criticized before fire

Research released raised issues of conditions in factories that may have contributed to last week's explosion

A two-week old report from a Hong Kong-based watchdog group may give us more insight into the explosion that killed three people at a Foxconn assembly plant in China on Friday.

The Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) released a 20-page report (PDF) on May 6 on working conditions in Foxconn facilities across China, including the Chengdu facility where Friday's incident occurred. Apple is also indicted in the report, since its products are assembled in Foxconn plants.

The report alleged workers at the Chengdu facility are forced to work excessive overtime and face "alarming" occupational health and safety issues, including large amounts of airborne dust in some areas:

"Workers in the polishing department also complain that the department is full of aluminum dust. Even though they have worn gloves, their hands are still covered by dust and so (is) their face and clothes. Some workers comment that ventilation on shop floor should be improved."

The conditions described in the report can give insight into what caused the blast in the iPad 2 assembly plant on Friday.

The New Zealand Herald reports that anonymous Foxconn employees told China's Economic Observer newspaper the blast was probably a dust explosion, which is caused by the combustion of suspended particles in a confined space.

It isn't much of a stretch to believe that was possible considering what one Foxconn employee said in the SACOM report.

"I'm breathing in dust at Foxconn just like a vacuum cleaner. My nostrils are totally black every day," the employee said.

Foxconn has been under scrutiny for several years after a series of suicide attempts by its employees. In response to criticism the company said it was changing policies to improve working conditions.

A few weeks back, Foxconn responded to SACOM's report saying it inaccurately represented the company:

"We have made tremendous progress over the past year as we work to lead our industry in meeting the needs of the new generation of workers in China and that has been confirmed by the many customer representatives, outside experts, and reporters who have visited our facilities and openly met with our employees and our management team."

Apple is also working with the manufacturer to get to the bottom of the conditions at its plants and the incident on Friday. It told All things Digital on Friday:

"We are deeply saddened by the tragedy at Foxconn's plant in Chengdu, and our hearts go out to the victims and their families. We are working closely with Foxconn to understand what caused this terrible event."

Hopefully Foxconn is taking steps to improve conditions in its assembly plants in China, but if nothing else Friday's incident confirms that there is still room for improvement.

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