Workshop of the world
February 19, 2010 8:47 PM   Subscribe

Health and safety issues at an 'investment casting' (AKA 'lost wax') factory near Ningbo. Seventh in a series of photo essays (1 2 3 4 5 6) by Hong Kong-based independent photographer Alex Hofford, looking at life and work in the factories of southern China where the world's stuff gets made.
posted by Abiezer (36 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
This was neat, thanks.
posted by captaincrouton at 9:14 PM on February 19, 2010


These photos are beautiful. The captions tell a more terrifying story. Thanks for sharing.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:20 PM on February 19, 2010


The foundry series is an odd mix of scenes that range from 200 years ago to now.
posted by Sova at 9:52 PM on February 19, 2010


The next stage of the process takes place in a foundry at night. This is because electricity in Ningbo is charged at half price after 11pm.
...
Meanwhile, other workers at the foundry stoke an electric-powered furnace. This part of the production process is only done at night. Apart from saving the factory money, it also makes for good pictures.


Heh.
posted by delmoi at 10:07 PM on February 19, 2010


Hmm...

The factory manager told me they tried a while ago to get the workers to wear goggles, gloves, boots, face masks and other saftey equipment. But the workers refused.
posted by delmoi at 10:09 PM on February 19, 2010


Woah, This image and the next three look like the result of a terminator holocaust or something. The pieces attached to the trees look like bones or something.
posted by delmoi at 10:20 PM on February 19, 2010


Hmm...

That had me wondering too. I do recall from doing similar jobs as a youth that thee were bits of safety kit that people didn't like as it interfered with the work, but then again that was often as much a speed issue so you'd have to consider piece rates or bonus rates. Can be a macho thing too, but you'd want a bit more detail before taking the manager's word at face value there.
posted by Abiezer at 10:31 PM on February 19, 2010


I can believe workers resist taking safety precautions. The photos remind me of the first real job I had after high school, in an open pit gold mine in the CA desert. Routinely dealt with extremely dusty rock crusher heavy equipment and cyanide leach pads. I was the youngest person working there at the time, and as I recall, I was usually the only person to wear things like gloves, company provided dust masks and safety glasses. Most of the men working there viewed that stuff as being for pussies, which only got in the way.

Neat pictures. The commentary strikes me as a bit condescending, though.
posted by 2N2222 at 10:33 PM on February 19, 2010


In a medieval scene, workers use power tools to make the products smooth.

Like that Bruegel painting of the peasants with their belt sanders?
posted by longsleeves at 10:38 PM on February 19, 2010 [16 favorites]


Most of the men working there viewed that stuff as being for pussies, which only got in the way.

I had a similar experience working for a specialty coating company the summer before I started college. I dealt with some nasty, nasty chemicals like organic solvents and polyurethane varnishes. We once resurfaced an enormous gymnasium, there were dozens of open containers of the coating material, and the fumes in the place were over powering.

I was the only person in the place wearing a respirator. I was chided about it for weeks. I couldn't understand it, and still don't.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 10:42 PM on February 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


I am told time and time again that Free Trade is beneficial to all parties. I guess I just don't have the education or the subtlety of thought that allows me to see 19th century working conditions as being beneficial to anyone.

Here's the deal, we here in the West don't want to impose health and safety guidelines on you to keep you down and poor... we want to impose health and safety guidelines n you as these are to rectify horrible, irreversible mistakes that were already made once, by us. It's inexcusable that you're being encouraged to make them again for a quick yuan by people from my country who absolutely know better.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:48 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I worked at my high school to pay back my tuition, and one summer I got to sand and polyurethane all the bathroom stalls. They gave me a paper particle mask and that was it. Of course, I also got to paint classrooms on a 15-foot ladder with no safety gear, mow the hillsides above the football field wearing sandals, etc, etc. ah, them was the days.
posted by toodleydoodley at 10:57 PM on February 19, 2010


Regarding safety equipment: I have visited several foundries in the US doing very similar work, with little safety equipment in sight. This is hard, hot, dirty work. Despite the dangers of molten metal, etc., people avoided the safety equipment for comfort.
posted by whatzit at 11:51 PM on February 19, 2010


I couldn't understand it, and still don't.

I use nitrile gloves when working in the shop on most anything. I get lots of flack from more "macho" friends. BFD, grimy-hand dudes. Some of that shit goes right through your skin, your liver is the next stop.
posted by maxwelton at 12:05 AM on February 20, 2010


we here in the West don't want to impose health and safety guidelines on you to keep you down and poor... we want to impose health and safety guidelines n you as these are to rectify horrible, irreversible mistakes that were already made once, by us.

How 'bout we here in the West let the Chinese impose their own health and safety guidelines on themselves? As noble as the fight for better working conditions in China may be, it is a fight that needs to be taken up by the Chinese on their own behalf rather than by finger wagging outsiders who don't have to live there and do those jobs.

And what about your premise? Suppose imposing Western health and safety standards does keep them down and poor? Is that really much comfort to the people I presume you want to help?

It just seems like too much of an uninformed outsider's criticism. I look at those pictures, and I see stuff that is not really so far off from what can be found here in the US. As a result, I'm a bit hesitant to start pointing fingers about 19th century working conditions and medieval factory scenes.
posted by 2N2222 at 12:06 AM on February 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


Wow, and all this time I've been thinking communism is the way to go. And the average salary in China is a couple hundred dollars a year, so those workers are getting paid somewhere in the range of 10 to 20 cents an hour.

Now I'm not so sure though. Problem is, capitalism is most definitely not the answer either, certainly not when our unemployment rate just jumped up several percentage points, and certainly not when capitalism forces me to pay for stuff, like my health for one (which I would think would be pretty cheap, but I pay $190 a month for my health!).

But then again, maybe capitalism is not so bad. Maybe it's okay for me to spend as much on my health as I do on my iPhone bill. Don't get me wrong, if I'm broke, and it comes down to it, health or cell phone? Cell phone of course. But anyways, aside from this, capitalism may be better than I thought. It's not perfect, nor will it ever be, but a median household income of $50K makes me think we're doing something right...
posted by stevenstevo at 12:10 AM on February 20, 2010


How 'bout we here in the West let the Chinese impose their own health and safety guidelines on themselves? As noble as the fight for better working conditions in China may be, it is a fight that needs to be taken up by the Chinese on their own behalf...

Um, yeah, of course there's a lot more too it than that. For one thing, we (i.e., the US) buy a lot from China, and there are of course moral implications involved with that, for a number of obvious reasons. Clearly you have to draw the line somewhere. For example, we wouldn't want to buy products from a company in China that employs slaves or 5-year old kids. And another part of the problem is that the profits that are derived from the sale of products made in conditions like these, well, that too comes back to us, currently in the form of cheap loans China makes to the US (read: T-bonds), which enables us to keep buying their plastic toys and rice.

And anyways, we do in fact let the Chinese impose their own health and safety guidelines. China pushes the limits though, hovering just above that line: it doesn't take much worse than what is seen in those pictures to reach a level that is far too inhumane.
posted by stevenstevo at 12:30 AM on February 20, 2010


Macho culture saves money. I worked at a marine paint factory in the USA and was not provided with safety equipment until I walked off the job. Mostly all of the workers did not use the safety equipment available to them, probably because it made the job even more unpleasant and strenuous. This was intensely physical labor, especially the jobs with the most potential for contact with the product. Most of the factory workers worked 10+ hours a day.

There's absolutely no incentive for the business to educate their employees about safety. The guy in charge of safety at the factory was lauded for his innovative ways of saving money, which mostly involved having the lowest paid guy in the factory handling stuff for which conventional disposal was too expensive. I have no idea of the legal or safety implications, but I know that safety considerations always seemed to come second to monetary concerns.

My point is that without strict enforcement and educated workers, industry will always be inhumane. It is a choice between safety and livelihood -- the men I worked with were struggling toward a middle class lifestyle, hard-working yet poorly-educated men from social underclasses. They have no advocate. They just want to support their families and to have something of their own. They did what they knew to do to survive. Laws alone are not enough to provide a safe work environment.

I'm lead to believe this is part of the reason organized labor is considered such a problem.
posted by polyhedron at 12:59 AM on February 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


These reminded me of the article
New York Manhole Covers, Forged Barefoot in India (NYTimes November 26, 2007)
posted by blueberry at 1:13 AM on February 20, 2010


I like Disney's approach of not using any Chinese (or other nationality, really) vendor, if they don't pass an inspection by Disney itself. If you want to sell your product at Disney theme parks, and who doesn't?, you better have a proper lunchroom, toilet facilities, regular work breaks, etc.
I've enjoyed working with the lost wax casting system for decades, albeit on a much smaller scale, in the jewelry industry. Another ancient type of casting is called gravity casting. Google that for some fun information!
posted by billybobtoo at 1:44 AM on February 20, 2010


How 'bout we here in the West let the Chinese impose their own health and safety guidelines on themselves? As noble as the fight for better working conditions in China may be, it is a fight that needs to be taken up by the Chinese on their own behalf rather than by finger wagging outsiders who don't have to live there and do those jobs

Well, given all the free speech and democracy it's just a matter of time before muckraking journalists mobilize the masses to vote for politicians who will clean things up.

Oh wait.
posted by delmoi at 1:45 AM on February 20, 2010


Regardless of all the health and safety rah rah it was very interesting to see the process described in words and pics so thanks for that.
I am of the opinion that equipping the workers with gloves, googles and masks is a minor investment (very low cost equipment) and the factory management would do it without significant impact to the bottom line if they had reason to and the fight against the 'machismo' wouldn't be annoying.

This particular case has little to do with profit, capitalism and stuff like that.
posted by Catfry at 3:30 AM on February 20, 2010


This is why our economy in the U.S. functions. At all.

Terrifying stuff.
posted by odinsdream at 3:33 AM on February 20, 2010


The factory manager told me they tried a while ago to get the workers to wear goggles, gloves, boots, face masks and other saftey equipment. But the workers refused.

This requires a pinch of salt bigger than if you dried out the dead sea.

"The major challenge of inspections was simply staying ahead of the factories we monitored. False time cards and payroll records, whole days spent coaching employees on how to lie during interviews, and even renaming certain factory buildings in order to create a smaller Potemkin village—all of these were techniques used by contractors to try to fool us. (emphasis mine)

From
Confessions of a Sweatshop Inspector
posted by smoke at 4:12 AM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Kudos for getting into the facility to shoot, but that was not a good photo essay.
posted by michswiss at 5:07 AM on February 20, 2010


Lost wax casting at a factory in North America. Features robots, and way more safety gear.
posted by FfejL at 6:22 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


that was another thing that struck me; How hands on and manual the process in this particular factory is. Since the wages in China are rising, and have been for some time, the mechanisation of the process will tend to make more and more economic sense as the steeper acquisition cost but cheaper to run machinery starts to outcompete ever more expensive human labour.
Alternatively the factory will move to Nigeria, where it will contribute to wage growth there etc.
posted by Catfry at 6:48 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


There is a long, long way to go before human labour is removed from the process. Tooling the production line and engineering the necessary precision is expensive. You need large production runs for that to be economically feasible, otherwise it's still cheaper to use (versatile, flexible!) human labour.

I don't think a move to Nigeria is likely either (maybe to Vietnam though). There's a whole ecology of factories that specialise in particular components or parts and their supporting supply chains (and sub-industries). And all these factories are conveniently located in industrial zones with easy access to transportation lines. There's a lot of development and planning that support these factories.
posted by tksh at 11:05 AM on February 20, 2010


Really interesting contrast between the Ningbo factory and the American one in the video.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:18 AM on February 20, 2010


Wait a second. They are casting engine crankshafts from recycled STEPLADDERS? I think I have figured out why Chinese engines are slightly less reliable than their American or Japanese counterparts.
posted by 1adam12 at 12:48 PM on February 20, 2010


I do recall from doing similar jobs as a youth that thee were bits of safety kit that people didn't like as it interfered with the work, but then again that was often as much a speed issue so you'd have to consider piece rates or bonus rates.

I used to manage receiving for the food service company at a fairly large college, and I worked a lot with the prep workers and line cooks to devise systems to cut down on food waste, spoilage, and contamination. They had no problem whatsoever with having their old ways altered to make the end product better: Ice sticks to cool soups safely? Sure! Don't cut raw chicken on the same table where you cut the tomatoes? Can do! Meticulous "first in, first out" procedures and coded markings to easily show how much "stuff" was left in a container? Yes sir! And so on.

Did I mention that the head chef was a pretty hardcore racist and an all around jerk? He'd force overtime on working moms so he could collect bonuses for keeping staffing low. He used fear and debasing comments all of the time to make sure everyone knew how little he thought of the people working there. He'd make people work through injuries and sickness. None of this seemed to bother the staff enough to merit fighting him on it.

Then, corporate decided that everyone using a knife had to wear one of those chainmail gloves on the hand holding whatever they were cutting, so as to prevent them from lopping off a finger. I kid you not, there was pretty much a fucking riot. People threw fits, people yelled at the boss, people refused to wear the things, had their pay docked for not wearing them, and some quit when they were pushed on it one time too many. They just would not wear those damn things, they HATED them.

I asked why, and the answers were usually that it made them less precise at their work, and they'd be damned if they were going to send uneven and lopsided veggies to the cooks. One woman just didn't like the feeling and sound of the metal glove on the metal prep surface. Another dude said something to the effect of "missing days of work because I cut myself is all of the motivation I will ever need not to screw up".

Eventually the company relented, and the gloves went away.
posted by rollbiz at 1:03 PM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


When I was in my very early 20s, I worked for several years in a jewelry production house, and one of my duties while I was there was doing the investment for the casting. The process involved receiving the wax trees (similar to those pictured, but much smaller) and putting canisters around them, and then mixing up a (basically) plaster-of-paris solution to pour into the canisters and carefully filling them and setting them to cure for eventual burnout and then casting.

The company had basically no safety procedures, and apparently had operated in that manner for years. The only place where there was any discussion of safety at all was in the plating lab, where it was explained that the gold solution was cyanide-based and that you really didn't want to breathe any of the fumes because the amyl capsules and adrenaline syringes had been stolen out of the cyanide poisoning kit long ago and were never replaced -- so getting poisoned in that room was a sure death sentence.

When I was trained on the investment process, I was told that breathing the dust from the plaster powder was unhealthy, so I should do what I could to avoid breathing it. I wasn't given any gloves or masks or respirator or anything. I did decide that the thing to do was, whenever I was doing anything which involved stirring up the dust, was to actively blow out gently during that stage of the process to push any dust in the air away from my face so I wouldn't actively breathe it in.

Another part of my duties involved applying "antiquing solution" to jewelry, basically a black dye that would bond to metal, and then removing it from the higher surfaces of the metal using acetone, leaving the black in the recesses and creating sharper detail on the piece. After spending about 2 weeks dipping a rag-wrapped finger into acetone and rubbing on the metal to remove the excess antiquing solution, my world began to turn into a dark grey pit of despair, and I began to express more and more bleak and actively suicidal thoughts until finally a dear friend handed me a book. I believe it was an older version of Artist Beware! (which has a revised copyright date of 2005, but this was in the early 1990s when I encountered the book.)

I quickly learned that acetone is easily absorbed through the skin, and that it's major effects are severe depression with suicidal thoughts.

I also learned that investment compound has very very fine silica particulates which can lead to silicosis.

I learned a hell of a lot more about the dangers of my workplace from that book, and would have began to insist that the owner start to implement some basic worker safety and health-conscious measures in the place, but around this time his coke habit caught up with him and he finally snorted the business away and the place dissolved in a fit of debt and mismanagement.

Later, other jewelry production houses that I worked in taught me how worker safety is supposed to be managed, and the comparison with that first place of employ was stark and actually frightening as the depth of the potential for future health problems I have been exposed to have sunk deeper into my mind.

I guess I won't know what the end results of my exposure to particulate silica and other workplace hazards will be for another decade or two yet. But I carry some background anger toward that employer and his utter lack of consideration for basic worker health safety. I don't think he was doing it maliciously, or was even conscious of the dangers. It seemed to be a business which started as a hobby for the man which grew organically into something larger, and as he brought in more workers, he wasn't aware of the dangers (and didn't bother to do the research), and thus was not educating newcomers in proper procedure. But it's something that I'm keenly aware of now.

I encourage ANY and ALL artists to get a copy of that book, BTW. Even if you don't think your art is hazardous, you'd be surprised at the things to which you may be exposing yourself. A little knowledge is great power when it comes to potential toxins.
posted by hippybear at 1:48 PM on February 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


apparently other effect of acetone on the human system are superfluous apostrophes
posted by hippybear at 2:05 PM on February 20, 2010


that doesn't explain the grocers
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:47 PM on February 20, 2010


Kudos for getting into the facility to shoot, but that was not a good photo essay.
That's probably as much my fault for framing it that way as I think the photographer referred to these as blog posts rather than photo essays (some of the earlier ones are only a couple of shots); I do agree it's the subject matter rather than anything technical/artistic about the work that is the main interest.
posted by Abiezer at 4:46 PM on February 20, 2010


On the health and safety thing I found it varied between the different jobs I did. When I first left school I was apprenticed to a cabinet maker. The boss was a lovely man and I was working with much older skilled colleagues. Everyone took a pride in the work, we never cut corners and safety kit was always there, I was properly trained before doing anything, you were under no pressure to risk your fingers on the band saws or whatever to make up time and no-one took the piss if you wanted to follow the right procedures. Of course, we went bust after a couple of years (mainly due to the slump in the finance industry in the late 80s so a lot of the wealthy bankers and brokers who could pay for our high-end stuff stopped getting fancy furniture and kitchens).
After that worked in a factory churning out cheaper furniture which wasn't too bad safety-wise if dull as all get out doing the same three operations all day, then on various other machine minding jobs and construction crews and so on which were a mixed bag and included some bodge-it-and-scarper outfits who were fairly cavalier while working with some dangerous power kit and chemicals.
One thing with the factories in South China that's a bit notorious and seems to be visible in the photos is that the plant/machinery is often bought in after having been mothballed from somewhere in Hong Kong or wherever, so it's usually pretty dated and lacking recent safety features. Had contact with various organisations who help in cases of industrial injury and it's definitely the case that time pressure can contribute to accidents. My experience with unions in the UK was OK (I was actually union rep for our workshop at one place and I was a pain in the arse to all and sundry on safety matters) but again mixed; there's only the one official state union in China of course and that's absent in a lot of private enterprises. I'm reasonably sceptical of Western CSR efforts but I do recall Reebok actually insisted on getting the ACFTU in at a couple of its suppliers with democratic elections.
posted by Abiezer at 5:06 PM on February 20, 2010


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