Plywood Infernal.

Generally, I never turn down the opportunity to visit a factory. At a minimum, they’re invariably interesting, especially if – like me – you’re at all interested in how the things that one takes for granted are created. At best (in my case, at least), factory visits might lead to new stories. So I was more than happy when told that – as part of something else I was doing – I would have the opportunity to visit a very large plywood factory in a northern Chinese city that manufactures several types of wood products (for various reasons I won’t go into now, I can’t and won’t reveal the name or location of this factory). Over the years, I’ve visited facilities where safety and environmental conditions were abominable; but I can say, I’ve never left any of them feeling as physically and emotionally upended as I felt after exiting this plywood plant.

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Some background. The facility manufactures unfinished plywood, and coated plywood. Its markets are Chinese and – increasingly – Africa and Eastern Europe (that is, places that value cheap building materials and don’t have very tight requirements on quality or safety). It does not export to North America or Europe. At some point, in the past, it exported to Japan, but for reasons that weren’t revealed, that relationship ended. It employs 100+ people, almost all of whom are migrants. This latter fact surprised me: the factory is located in a relatively small town of the sort that one expects people to migrate from. But the economy of this town is quite unusual, and most of the locals prefer to work in the other major industry (which I won’t name). Like the manufacture of plywood, the other major industry utilizes hazardous chemicals with well-known negative health effects. Even so, despite two bad choices, the locals know that the more fatal choice is plywood. According to two knowledgeable people with whom I spoke about the issue (one of whom was very local), locals expect employees of the plywood plant to contract a terminal illness within two to three years of employment. I suppose it’s no accident, then, that few of the non-management employees that I saw at this plant appeared to be older than 25.

Like so many Chinese factories, the plywood operation impresses on scale alone. Below, a very small part of the yard where the thin leaves of wood are stored before being pressed into plywood.

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I’m no expert in the manufacture of wood products, but it doesn’t take much digging online to learn that plywood is manufactured using adhesives that – in high concentrations – can cause cancer. In the US, at least, manufacturers are moving away from traditional adhesives (that contain formaldehyde). I have no idea if this is the case, also, in China. But what I do know is that – in this Chinese plywood factory – the heat presses where the sheets of wood were adhered together, the only ventilation was open doors and windows. Below, a couple of images of the pressing operation. Note, in the second image, the shorts and sandals worn by the workers and – most serious – the lack of respiratory protection:

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Below, an image of the finished product. I have no idea how to evaluate the quality of plywood, or whether or not it can be evaluated on the basis of a photo, but if so – I’d be very grateful for any insights into this particular batch.

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Anyway, some percentage of the finished plywood is moved over to a series of warehouses where black vinyl (I think it’s vinyl) sheets are cooked onto its surface in presses similar to those used to adhere the wood sheets. A manager with the factory assured me that the resulting vinyl-covered black plywood was of the “highest quality.” Again, I have no way of knowing. But what I do know is that the odor in the room where this process was occurring was overwhelming. I lasted only a few minutes and then my eyes began to water uncontrollably and swell. I rushed out into the daylight and relatively fresh air where it took a good ten minutes – maybe more – for my eyes to recover. Below, some images of the kids who remained working in that warehouse and who – as I already mentioned – the locals expect to survive for two or three years, at best.

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The nature of this visit prevented me from asking any of these migrant kids whether or not they are aware of the mortality statistics whispered by the locals who prefer to work elsewhere. I find it hard to believe that they don’t know. But if they don’t, surely the managers and owners of this company do know. And the lack of health and safety equipment present in the facility speaks to management’s lack of concern.

I don’t know much about the plywood industry, and not much more about what drives a young person from a village to a deadly factory in a town without a future. So, for now, I’ll pass on drawing too many conclusions from these images, and this experience. I think in this case it’s enough to share it.

17 thoughts on “Plywood Infernal.

  1. Quite shocking, Adam. I would wonder if the factory’s workers are recruited from a rotating list of villages, where health concerns are rumour, and no one village gets enough exposure in terms of deaths over a substantial period of time to accumulate the knowledge that health concerns are far more fact than rumour. That would be quite an implication on management, however.

    Did you do a search on various local or national BBSs for the factory name, and how much, if at all, it is in the public eye.

    Sadly I fear this case is not unique.

  2. Death in three years is pretty harsh. I’d believe disease in three years, or, you don’t last more than three years on the job… It does seem like the story merits some follow-up.

  3. If this is so bad don’t you think you should be telling us the name of the company???

  4. Alex – I wish that I coud’ve done some actual interviews while at the plant. But, alas, the nature of my visit didn’t really allow it. I did, in fact, have a look online for info on the company, and found little to nothing – and certainly nothing related to the health and environmental issues. Based upon conversations that I had at the plant, and afterward, I think that this operation is fairly representative of how this industry operates in China.

    Joe – I know what you mean. But that’s how the situation was conveyed to me. I’d love to follow-up on this, but I’m not sure that I’ll be able to do it for reasons having to do with how I was able to access this shop in the first place.

    Shep – No, I don’t.

  5. You could contact the authorities… I would feel a moral obligation to do something about it… But I’m in Canada and don’t get to go visit factories…

  6. If locals know I’m pretty sure everybody knows. Information is spread pretty quickly in these small towns.

  7. I know something about plywood and the stuff in this photo is crap. Look how the sheets wave around in it. Its not a uniform product. It couldn’t be sold in the US or EU. I don’t know the Japan market but I would be surprised.

  8. Adam.

    I have been on my fair share of factory visits in this industry for clients, and a few things

    1) The condition of the factory (walls, roof, piles of wood everywhere) looks like the ones I have seen, and I would say this is running right at the middle of the road in terms of cleanliness.

    2) No one wearing safety equipment, people wearing thongs, etc. Industry standard. I was once in a flooring mill whose equipment was loud enough to drown out my screams at 3 feet. No one used the equipment provided to protect their ears, and those wearing goggles would remove them when looking at anything of interest (the most dangerous time to remove them).

    3) Do you have any shots of the chemical barrels? I would be interested in seeing how they store those as well. I have seen factories that simply store them next to the machines without a cap/ top/etc.

    4) with regard to the 3yr window, I doubt that the workers are dying in 3 years. Sounds more like they can only work for 3 years. Should research more, but if it really was dead in 3 years, the boss would have to pay monster salaries to offset that (sorry.. I know that sounds cold) to keep his shop open.

    5) find out who they are selling to, and let them know the conditions. Regardless of the answer to #4, the buyers should be made aware.. and pressured to change.

    r

  9. why do they work there? the reason has to do with eating …

    and yes, the industrial revolution is a crude monster, better than when dickens wrote about its beginnings, not as good as it will be …

  10. I think I’ve got cold blooded or already accustomed towards these lethal facts as a local folk, and I guess most Chinese had the same feeling as mine.

    Just like another news on the tele telling you several workers died in the mine. It is the cultural to overlook the ‘unlucky minority’ in order to achieve overal prospect for the whole country.

    There are far more to develop and change ahead…

  11. If the locals are not turning the factory in, why should you ? I bet the local authorities already know about the situation, but they ain’t telling anybody else either. I think eating is important to Chinese migrant workers, and you too. I don’t see why a foreigner should be responsible for alarming authorities about some thing they know for ages.

  12. Thanks for this post.
    I think a lot of the responses make sense–certainly people know, certainly other examples of this kind of workshop exist in China and elsewhere, and certainly one feels an urgent moral obligation to do something. At the same time, i don’t think any one of these responses is really adequate…they are all true. So ultimately i sympathize with you Adam, in presenting it carefully and without some definitive answer.

    As far as whether folks die or not in 3 years, my guess is that the people who were telling you this meant that a year or two almost inevitably results in fatal illness, maybe not immediate, but ultimately fatal, and that is why they spoke of death; in other words, your companions were conveying that they too were appalled and saw this as essentially selling one’s life for money.

    One last point: it is too simplistic to say the locals aren’t turning in the factory so why should you. Fact is that if there are rich elites and local officials who profit greatly from this, which there undoubtedly are, speaking out can be dangerous. Thuggish behavior by officials is often the norm in some parts of rural China, especially where money is concerned. And of course most folks in the area probably feel very conflicted: this industry is their life and their death.

  13. If you don’t have any relationship with these workers, then why even care about them? Save your worry for people you know, who are important to you. There are too many people in China to worry about all of them, especially in rural provinces.

  14. OK, as Adam said the poisonous stuff is probably formaldehyde, and chances are he’s uncovered a safety hazard that exists in many, if not most, plywood factories in China. Below is the Material Safety Data Sheet for an aqueous Formaldehyde/methanol solution which may or may not be the same as the formaldehyde solutions used to make plywood. Wikipedia says that formaldehyde is used to make the adhesives in plywood, but there is an additional chemical step to make the adhesive… as a chemist, I know that the risks on the MSDS’s are always, often alarmingly, overstated, but everybody knows formaldehyde is toxic. Yes, environmentalists are hysteric about small amount of formaldehyde, but higher exposures really will hurt you.

    Evidently, these are just working conditions in China, but it certainly is a shame that these workers’ lungs are being severely damaged and the workers don’t seem to feel that they have better alternatives. Obviously if no one would agree to work there the factory bosses would invest in some protective equipment. As Adam pointed out, these products are not bound for developed nations with stringent worker safety rules or environmental rules, so there isn’t really even a journalistic opportunity to ‘out’ the company that imports and sells the stuff.

    I think the main ‘lesson’ is that this is what happens when China’s leadership always asserts that China is too poor to have environmental regulations or to protect worker health. A lot of that eco/health stuff is hysterics, but some isn’t, and this looks like a situation where it probably isn’t.

    Ingredient CAS No Percent Hazardous
    ————————————— ———— ———— ———

    Formaldehyde 50-00-0 37% Yes
    Methyl Alcohol 67-56-1 10 – 15% Yes
    Water 7732-18-5 48 – 53% No

    Emergency Overview
    ————————–
    POISON! DANGER! SUSPECT CANCER HAZARD. MAY CAUSE CANCER. Risk of cancer depends on level and duration of exposure. VAPOR HARMFUL. HARMFUL IF INHALED OR ABSORBED THROUGH SKIN. CAUSES IRRITATION TO SKIN, EYES AND RESPIRATORY TRACT. STRONG SENSITIZER. MAY BE FATAL OR CAUSE BLINDNESS IF SWALLOWED. CANNOT BE MADE NONPOISONOUS. FLAMMABLE LIQUID AND VAPOR.

    SAF-T-DATA(tm) Ratings (Provided here for your convenience)
    ———————————————————————————————————–
    Health Rating: 3 – Severe (Poison)
    Flammability Rating: 2 – Moderate
    Reactivity Rating: 2 – Moderate
    Contact Rating: 3 – Severe (Corrosive)
    Lab Protective Equip: GOGGLES & SHIELD; LAB COAT & APRON; VENT HOOD; PROPER GLOVES; CLASS B EXTINGUISHER
    Storage Color Code: Red (Flammable)
    ———————————————————————————————————–

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