In an effort to improve worker safety, labor rights, and environmental impact, Apple recently released its annual Supplier Responsibility Report. The report confirms that two explosions that occurred last year at separate facilities in China were a result of combustible dust, more specifically, excessive aluminum dust. The release of this report is just another reminder that combustible dust continues to be a major workplace threat throughout the world and exists in many industries

The first incident occurred in May 2011 at the Foxconn plant in Chengdu China. The explosion killed four workers and injured 18 others. The Foxconn facility produces iPads for Apple, as well as products for companies such as Motorola and Hewlett-Packard. There are an estimated 100,000 workers employed at the facility and the factory and has come under scrutiny in the past for its unsafe working conditions. A report released following the May incident by Hong Kong based group, Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, stated that some workers at the Foxconn plant claimed that they were constantly breathing in aluminum dust. In addition, the polishing department complained that the area was full of aluminum dust.

The second combustible dust explosion occurred at Apple’s supplier Pegatron, located in Shanghai, in December 2011. The explosion injured 61 workers and also resulted in the damage of a minor part of the facilities’ automation equipment. In addition to Apple, Pegratron is a supplier for companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and Asus.

Reports indicate that at both the Foxconn and Pegatron plants, aluminum dust was identified as being produced while milling and polishing the casings of Apple products like the Mac, MacBook, and iPad.

The Apple Supplier Responsibility Report states that immediately following each of these combustible dust explosion incidents, Apple contacted experts in process safety to help put together teams to investigate the circumstances that lead to each of the explosions. The teams then made recommendations regarding the prevention of future incidents and established new standards for handling combustible dust throughout their supply chain. According to the report, those standards include:

  • Specific ventilation requirements with regular testing of airflow velocity
  • Comprehensive inspections of ductwork to identify aluminum dust deposits
  • Banning the use of high-pressure compressed air for cleaning to lower the possibility of dust clouds forming
  • Requiring that all vacuums be rated explosive proof to prevent ignition
  • Ensuring that type-D fire extinguishers are available to handle metal fires

While these are all good preventative measures, one recommendation that was not noted in the supplier report is periodic audits of the plants for the presence of combustible dust explosion hazards. With the exception of the recommendation to regularly test testing airflow velocity, there is no emphasis that the one-time recommendations could be ineffective in the long run without periodic audits of the facilities to assess the continued effectiveness and applicability of the measures, as well as any process changes that may create new hazards