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Former Takata employees have charged that the Japanese airbag manufacturer conducted secret tests in 2004 on 50 airbags retrieved from scrapyards, saying that tests were performed after work hours, on weekends, and holidays during the summer of 2004 at the company’s American headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Takata denies the allegations.

According to the employees who came forward on the condition of anonymity, when the tests exposed defects in the steel inflators of two of the airbags, instead of alerting federal safety regulators to the potential danger, company executives discounted the results and ordered technicians to delete the testing data from computers and dispose of the faulty airbag inflaters in the trash.

The secret tests, not previously disclosed, were conducted four years before Takata admitted in regulatory filings that it had conducted tests on the problematic airbags. Later tests led to the first airbag recall four years later, in 2008. Takata blames manufacturing problems and exposure to moisture by cars in humid regions for the defect, which caused the propellant to degrade and burn too strongly when the airbag deployed, rupturing the inflater.

Currently, eleven automakers have recalled more than 14 million vehicles worldwide because of Takata airbag rupture risks. So far there have been four deaths and more than 30 injuries linked to the defect, which causes the airbag’s steel canister to crack and explode into pieces when deployed in a crash, spewing metal debris into the vehicle’s interior, severely injuring drivers and passengers. But complaints have been received by regulators blaming Takata airbags for a minimum of 139 injuries, including 37 individuals who said that the airbags ruptured or spewed out metal fragments or chemicals.

Takata is one of the world’s largest suppliers of airbags, with a global market share of about 20 percent. Although Takata has said the problems with the airbags were corrected in the early 2000s, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has reopened an earlier investigation into four deaths in Hondas related to Takata airbags since 2008, and the company is also the subject of a U.S. criminal investigation over the defective airbags.

For more information on the expanded air bag recall click here.

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