STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The newest version of Apple's iPad goes on sale this week. The new gadget from Apple almost guarantees good publicity, but in recent months Apple has faced criticism for working conditions in Chinese factories that helped to build iPads. A New York Times investigation focused on an explosion at an Apple supplier factory last May. In December, another explosion struck a different Apple supplier factory in Shanghai, and NPR's Frank Langfitt spoke with workers injured in that accident. The workers criticized plant safety and said Apple inspectors toured the factory hours before the explosion.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Twenty-five workers crowded into a tiny hospital room to tell their stories. Many came for continued treatment for burns they'd suffered in the blast. He Wenwen ran a machine that polished aluminum backings for the iPad 2.
HE WENWEN: (Through translator) I was just calibrating my machine and suddenly there was the sound of an explosion. Then I saw a fireball coming towards me. 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.
LANGFITT: Fifty-nine workers were injured in the explosion, according to Apple. A fireball singed He's face, leaving the upper half badly burned. More than two months later, the 24-year-old still looks like he's wearing a bright red mask. He worries his disfigurement will make it harder to find a wife.
WENWEN: (Through translator) For a young man like me, still single, unmarried, this injury has a real impact. It really affects my appearance. I often quarrel with my girlfriend about it. She doesn't like it.
LANGFITT: Apple blamed the explosion on a build-up of dust, fueled by aluminum particles from the polishing process. Pegatron, the factory's owner, said the explosion started in equipment that collects the particles. Bob Zalosh has a doctorate in mechanical engineering and has studied dust explosions since 1975. He says a spark can ignite a dust cloud, inside equipment or floating in the air.
BOB ZALOSH: So if it's really fine aluminum, we know that that's capable of creating quite a nasty dust explosion or fireball, because it has a very high flame temperature.
LANGFITT: He, the factory worker, said each polishing machine had an exhaust pipe, but dust was still a constant problem in the plant.
WENWEN: (Through translator) We wore face masks, very thick masks. But when we took them off, our nostrils were full of dust. The windows were sealed shut. The integrated system vacuumed the dust from each machine, but it was not ideal. The air in the factory looked a bit like fog.
LANGFITT: Seven months earlier, a dust explosion ripped through another iPad factory in the Chinese city of Chengdu. That factory is owned by a different Apple supplier, a huge Taiwanese company called Foxconn. The blast killed four workers but got little coverage in China's state-run press. Zhang Qing, who worked in the Shanghai factory, said employees were never told about the explosion in Chengdu or that dust was actually combustible.
ZHANG QING: (Through translator) When we first got here, they never told us this could explode.
LANGFITT: The Shanghai workers earn a base wage of $200 a month - they're up to $450 with overtime. The day of the Shanghai blast, managers told them to clean up dust because Apple inspectors were visiting. Liu Hengchao, another injured plant worker, recalls watching the inspectors.
LIU HENGCHAO: (Through translator) They wore white gloves to check if there was dust. There certainly has to be dust.
LANGFITT: Liu says management told the workers not to talk to the Apple inspectors, who spent about 10 minutes in the area and then left. Liu says if he'd been allowed to speak, he would have told them this...
HENGCHAO: (Through translator) I probably would have told them they could improve the environment somewhat, because the environment is too terrible.
LANGFITT: Apple and Pegatron declined requests for interviews. In a recent report, Apple said it had investigated the May explosion and it sought ways to avoid future ones. Apple did not explain why those efforts failed to prevent the Shanghai explosion seven months later. Apple also says it has established new requirements for handling combustible dust. They include regularly testing the air flow in ventilation systems.
TIM COOK: Apple takes working conditions very, very seriously, and we have for a very long time.
LANGFITT: This is Apple CEO Tim Cook responding to criticism of the company at an event last month. Apple has contracted with an industry-supported monitoring group to interview tens of thousands of workers at Apple suppliers.
COOK: The Fair Labor Association began a major audit of our final assembly vendors at our request. The audit that they're conducting is probably the most detailed factory audit in the history of mass manufacturing.
LANGFITT: When I met factory workers at the beginning of last week, all 25 said no one from Apple had ever contacted them about the explosion. Later - after NPR contacted Apple - other workers said they'd finally started receiving calls from the company, checking on their injuries and making sure they'd received compensation, which came to about $800 each. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.
INSKEEP: And NPR's Steve Henn also reported this story from Silicon Valley.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.