GlobalPost’s Kathleen E. McLaughlin reports that workers who make Apple touchscreens at a Wintek factory in Suzhou, China have been experiencing pain, weakness, blurred vision, and numbness and tingling that have made walking and working difficult. Workers trace their problems to n-hexane, a chemical used in cleaning touchscreens, and Wintek admits that it used that chemical – without the proper permits – for nearly a year. Apple “rejected repeated interview requests, refused to confirm whether its products were involved and directed questions to its 2010 Supplier Responsibility audit, which does not address chemical poisoning.” McLaughlin explores the technology giant’s role in worker-health issues like this one:

The case highlights problems with the widespread practice of technology giants’ outsourcing and fragmented supply chains. There is no single iPhone or iTouch factory, for example. Instead, outside companies are hired to make components and assemble the phones or other products.

… There are tangible steps companies like Apple can take to protect workers, labor-rights groups say. Employees should be allowed to organize unions, said Geoffrey Crothall of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin. Also, nothing beats on-the-ground inspections from the companies that produce the final products.

“What they have to do is take a more hands-on approach,” said Crothall, noting Apple’s recently released supplier compliance report, which found multiple problems but did not name the offending factories. “There’s nothing in that Apple report that focuses on this particular factory,” said Crothall. “Apple should be commended on taking some measures, but it just needs to go further.”

This article is part of GlobalPost’s Silicon Sweatshop series, which investigates labor-rights violations at factories that manufacture electronic goods.

In other news:

Seattle Times: Five years after the explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery killed 15 workers and injured 180 others, refinery disasters are still killing workers. Last week, a fire and explosion at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington claimed five workers’ lives (see Celeste’s post on Tesoro and refinery safety for more).

Charleston Daily Mail: Department of Labor auditors report that the Mine Safety and Health Administration is failing to keep its inspectors adequately trained.

Environmental Health News: Epidemiologists from University of Iowa, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Cancer Institute found that repeated exposure to six pesticides doubled the risk of skin cancer among farmworkers.

The Patriot-Ledger (Massachusetts): The Veterans Administration has proposed a change in regulations that would allow Vietnam veterans suffering from B cell leukemia, Parkinson’s disease, and coronary artery disease – which have been linked to exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange – to automatically qualify for medical care and disability payments.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration: OSHA has published a direct final rule requiring employers to notify workers of exposures to hexavalent chromium, and it will accept public comments until April 16.