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Safety and Health Practitioner (SHP) is first for independent health and safety news.
February 23, 2011

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IT giant stung by workers’ toxic-chemical appeal

Chinese workers at a factory making touch-screen devices for Apple have aired their health and safety grievances in a letter sent to the US company’s CEO, Steve Jobs.

In 2009, 137 workers at Apple supplier Wintek’s Suzhou facility in China’s Jiangsu Province, suffered adverse health effects following exposure to n-hexane, a chemical in cleaning agents used in some manufacturing processes.

Individuals who come into contact with the chemical for extended periods while working in poorly ventilated areas can experience such symptoms as fatigue, numbness of the limbs, and nerve damage to the peripheral nervous system. In severe cases, it can also lead to neuronal damage.

The workers are all said to have recovered, with many returning to employment at the same plant, but reports from the Reuters news agency suggest that the Taiwanese factory-owner has held back on paying adequate compensation to affected workers and put pressure on those who were compensated to relinquish their jobs.

A letter signed by five workers, claiming to represent employees at the factory, and addressed to Apple supremo Steve Jobs, reads: “From when hexyl hydride was used, monthly profits at Apple and Wintek have gone up by tens of millions every month, the accumulated outcome of workers’ lives and health.”

According to Reuters, when asked about the letter, Apple referred it back to its supplier-responsibility progress report, issued earlier this month.

On learning of the incidents last year, Apple ordered the Taiwanese company to withdraw its use of n-hexane, which Wintek replaced with alcohol, acetone and other organic solvents. The firm also confirmed that it gave workers effective PPE and improved the ventilation system.

Workers who had come into contact with the chemical underwent medical examination and treatment where necessary. Wintek paid the workers’ medical treatment, meals and wages while they were recuperating.

The company also set up a programme to assess and manage the chemicals it uses and worked with a consultant to improve its health and safety processes and systems.

According to the progress report, Apple is planning to re-audit the facility later this year to check if the actions taken have been effective.

The report outlines several areas in which Apple will focus attention to improve supplier responsibility on working conditions. The company says it will be working with industry groups and NGOs in China to address issues such as working hours, underage labour, and employee well-being.

Last year, Foxconn, Apple’s main supplier in China, experienced a spate of suicides among its workforce at the Shenzhen facility. In June, Apple set up a team of suicide-prevention experts to conduct a wide-ranging investigation into the deaths and recommend ways to support workers’ mental health.

Presenting its findings in August, the team commended Foxconn for hiring a number of psychological counsellors, establishing a 24-hour care centre, and attaching large nets to the factory buildings to prevent impulsive suicides – concluding that this action had “definitely saved lives”.

Apple also suggested further areas for improvement, including better training of hotline staff and care-centre counsellors, while Foxconn is also implementing an employee assistance programme that focuses on supporting workers’ mental health and expanding social-support networks.

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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13 years ago

Manufacturing moved east from the west because of low labour costs and lax HSE standards. It is unforgivable that the westen governments have allowed western companies to set up eastern “low standard” companies and then export their goods to the west, knowing that the working standards are unacceptable and well below EU standards. The EU directive should put a stop to it and make it law that anyone importing goods from eastern countries must comply to EU HSE standards…

13 years ago

you really know your workforce is de-motivated when you have to attach large nets to the side of buildings to prevent suicides!!