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The Weekend Shift

A Silicon Valley Manufacturing Mystery

Krissy Clark

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This story is a mystery. A tragic one, set in motion one weekend in September, when a young man was working late at his job in California's Silicon Valley.

Lots of jobs in Silicon Valley's hi-tech industry require putting in some extra time on the weekends, whether you're the CEO of a new start-up, a self-taught Web designer or a software developer with an MIT degree. But none of those job titles describe the man at the center of this mystery.

This man was working on the other end of the high-tech industry -- the end most of us don't think about too much. The manufacturing end. This man was at a factory making circuit boards, which power pretty much every single electronic gadget that you own. Weekend America's Krissy Clark has the story.


This mystery begins in my purse, or in your back pocket, or wherever my cell phone or your iPod might be right now. If you pry off the gadget's plastic casing and break the device apart, inside you'll find the "brains" attached to what's called a printed circuit. It's a green board with a complicated pattern of thin copper lines which determine the path an electric current will take.

This intricate board looks like it sprang into the world fully formed. But it was actually made somewhere, by human beings. In a factory like the one Laura Boozer heads up.

"As you can see, factory in manufacturing isn't glamorous," she says.

Boozer is the chief operating officer of this factory, called Coastal Circuits. She's showing me around a drab trailer and low-slung warehouse just off the freeway in Redwood City, south of San Francisco. In the late 1980s, this area was home to at least 100 shops like this, supplying the raw materials for the Silicon Valley tech boom. Now, most circuit boards come from China, where they're cheaper. But a few stateside factories have managed to hang on.

"One of the things that makes us a unique niche is that we're quick-turn," explains Boozer. When local tech companies develop a new gadget -- say, a new GPS system or medical device -- they need to test their design with a prototype before they mass-produce it overseas. Many of the circuit boards for those prototypes are made here at Coastal Circuits.

Even though they're more expensive, they're available on short order. "When a customer needs something in three days, it means they expect to get it in three days," says Boozer. "And we really have to push work through different shifts to get that accomplished. That's how we have a competitive advantage over our offshore counterparts."

And that's why this factory runs 24 hours a day during the week, and often stays open late for rush jobs on weekends.


"Do you have your safety glasses?" Kathy Bergman asks me. She's the process efficiency director at Coastal Circuits, and she supervises what happens on the factory floor. Bergman takes me into a giant room with rows of small tanks. Some are filled with water rinses. Some of them bubble with different-colored liquids, many of them highly corrosive: phosphoric acid, sodium hydroxide, sulfuric acid, an electric-blue solution of liquid copper.

This is the plating shop. Bergman introduces me to an older man named Jose Luis, who takes the fiberglass cores of several circuit boards and dips them into a series of chemical solutions to coat them with a thin layer of conductive metal. It will later be etched off, except for a fine pattern of traces.

Luis tells me proudly that he's been working at circuit board factories in Silicon Valley for almost 30 years. "At six different companies," he says. He, like most of the workers here, is from Mexico and speaks mostly Spanish. Bergman, like most of the supervisors here, is white, and does not. She has a Spanish tutor so she can communicate better with her staff. That's especially important in a place like this, filled with open tanks of chemicals.

I ask Bergman if it would be dangerous to get splashed by the chemicals in some of these tanks. "Absolutely," she says. "Our operators wear mandillos, which is Spanish for apron. I always say 'Put on your mandillo!' They wear safety glasses. When they're dipping the boards in the tanks, they wear face shields. They wear chemical resistant boots. They wear long sleeves. And they wear gloves."

On our way out of the plating shop, something catches my eye, tucked into a corner of the room by the door -- a framed photo of a young man with dark hair, smiling. Someone has arranged silk flowers around it.

I ask Bergman what it is. She looks down, and pauses. "It's just a picture of an employee..." she trails off. And then she takes me in to the silk-screening room, where the circuit boards are painted their signature green color.




On September 23, 2007, 18-year-old Fernando Gonzalez was found dead at his workplace. He is the young man memorialized in that picture in the factory. He worked on the plating line at Coastal Circuits. The district attorney for San Mateo County, where Gonzalez died, is still investigating his death to determine whether the case warrants criminal charges -- particularly crimes involving workplace safety.

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA, already concluded its investigation. Industrial hygienist Scott McAllister headed it up, with very little evidence to go on, because Fernando Gonzalez was working alone on a special shift at the factory the night that he died. When Gonzalez still wasn't home at 1 o'clock in the morning, his family got worried.

"Fernando Gonzalez's father had come to Coastal Circuits, the shop where they both worked," says McAllister. Gonzalez' father "found his son in a rinse tank on the plating line, having probably drowned. And he was dead."

The father told authorities he'd found his son wedged into a tank upside down. The autopsy revealed no signs of foul play, drugs or death from natural causes. It did reveal faint traces of sulfuric acid in Gonzalez's blood.

There was an early theory that fumes from one of the chemical compounds on the plating line overcame Gonzalez, made him pass out into a tank. But when McAllister tried to re-create the environment that night, based on interviews with other workers, he found nothing to suggest that's what happened.

"We sampled the person who did Fernando's job pretty much exactly as he was doing it the night that he died, and we find that the exposures were very, very slight," McAllister says.

There were a few clear work safety violations the night Gonzalez died. They amounted to $3,800 in Cal/OSHA citations for Coastal Circuits, which the factory has since appealed. McAllister lists them some of them: "He wasn't wearing his safety glasses. He didn't have his smock on, and there was a serious citation issued for the lack of a guard rail along the tanks. We have a requirement for a 36-inch guard rail so that people can't fall in to tanks, and that wasn't present."

But McAllister says the guard rails are only required around tanks full of corrosive chemicals, and Gonzalez fell in to a tank full of water. Based on the little evidence he has, McAllister says, there's nothing Coastal Circuits did or didn't do that he can point to and say if things had been different, Fernando Gonzalez would still be alive. But that was hard to explain to Gonzalez' family.

"I was the guy who had to bring Fernando's clothes back to his uncle," McAllister says. "And he asked me, 'What do you know? Do you know something? Did you find out something?' And I had to say 'No, I don't have anything. I don't have any answers for you. I'm sorry. I just have his clothes. That was it.'"


The people who used to work with Fernando Gonzalez don't talk say a word about the mystery when I'm touring the factory.

Not only Gonzalez' father but two uncles and a sister all still work at the factory. When I asked to speak with them about the case, Coastal Circuits officials said they did not want to disturb the family. Repeated attempts to reach the family outside of work were unsuccessful.

Kathy Bergman, the company's process efficiencies director, says right after the accident Coastal Circuits brought in counselors to help workers deal with their grief.

The operation closed for a few days for the investigation. But then everybody got back to work. Bergman says the workers wanted to go back -- they needed the money. She says a lot of them work paycheck to paycheck.

"This is what we do. This is our life. This is what everybody knows how to do," Bergman says. "It was a terrible, terrible blow. But we have to go on. You know, we love each other. We got through it together. And we're going forward."

It's likely that no one will ever know exactly how or why Fernando Gonzalez died. That mystery will remain unsolved. But that's only one of the mysteries that this story is about. There is another mystery to this story, too: The mystery of who makes the electronic parts that power our cell phones and iPods and pacemakers in the first place.

When we get these devices, fully assembled and shiny and new, they seem to be magic, and they seem to come from some magical place. But they come from a real place -- sometimes far away in China, sometimes, right here in the United States, just off a freeway. A place that smells bad, that is full of potentially dangerous chemicals, a place where young men and their fathers and uncles and sisters go to work every day.

  • Music Bridge:
    Grunt
    Artist: B. Fleischmann
    CD: Hello Tourist (Morr)
More stories from our The Weekend Shift series

Comments

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  • By eduardo gonzalez

    From mexico, UT, 06/29/2010

    is good news to know thay you consideres the tragedy of fernando like mistery because i am his cousin and the family can not say anything about his dead some uncles says that my fernando was killed by some person whose has been knowing by jose luis his father, since fernando died a lot things very strange hapened i hope some day tell you.

    By Jim Hanson

    05/04/2008

    Aaron, your observations about my previous post are an example of the 'four blind men and the elephant' parable. What I am addressing is the POV the reporter used in this story, and the rhetorical devices she used in writing it. I take issue with some of those devices--namely, the interjection of a perceived consumer viewpoint (magical thinking)ascribed to the demographic this program is trying to draw into the Public Radio fold. "Magical thinking" reinforces those consumerism myths, and in doing so it lets the listener off the hook of knowing the real-world details about how their latest (electronic) toy actually is made. While this kind of rhetoric can be politically-neutral, it is most often employed with "the left", and it rewards feeling good over thinking well. Again, to utilize it here is inappropriate--at least if the intent of WeekendAmerica is to continue the tradition of in-depth analyses of important subject. I suspect both you and I would 'enjoy' reading the same kind of report. jfh

    By Aaron Bird

    From MI, 05/03/2008

    I'm an industrial hygienist, which is a fancy name for safety guy. I'm of a conservative mindset and have a PhD in Industrial Engineering. Contrary, to what other posters might write, this article has nothing to do with "leftist" stuff. I'm more pro industry than most business folks, and this kind of thing (mystery deaths at work) happens all the time... unfortunately. Consumerism myths are often just that, but the "system", i.e. OSHA, CAL-OSHA and NIOSH, has such specific reporting rules/regulations that there isn't room for B.S. reporting. If anything, this article doesn't go far enough in its reporting. Incident investigations are typically much more detailed.

    By Jim Hanson

    From Maple Plain, MN, 05/03/2008

    While it may well be what Weekend America / APM needs to do to attract its new demographic, I have to say I find it jarring to hear a report about the death of a worker laced with magical thinking. I usually associate that with leftist politics to promulgate myths, and it certainly has no place in a report like this. Why reinforce consumerism myths?

    "jfh"

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