Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. failed to contact authorities for 26 hours after two separate leaks of hydrofluoric acid gas killed one contractor and injured four others at its chip plant, about 70 kilometers south of Seoul, in Jan. 27-28.
On Jan. 27, about at 1:00pm local time, a 500-liter (132 gallon) tank at Samsung’s Hwaseong, Gyeonggi-do plant began to leak diluted hydrofluoric acid gas through a melted gasket, the independent newspaper Hankyoreh reported. The tank reportedly leaked again at 5am the following day. A total of ten liters of the acidic gas leaked.
Hydrofluoric acid, used to remove impurities from chip wafers, is a potentially dangerous industrial-grade substance that can immediately and permanently damage lungs and corneas.
At 11pm, Samsung called four workers of maintenance firm STI to fix leak. The world’s largest chipmaker did not report the leaks until 3pm, about an hour after an STI worker died from exposure to the acid and four others were hospitalized for chest pain and rashes.
Go Unreported And Unprotected
Contrary to earlier press reports claiming that the dead worker did not have any protective gear save a mask, the 34 years old, identified by his last name, Park, wore a protective suit after inspecting the leak, according to a Yonhap News report. The other four’s protective suits proved inadequate, as they all were exposed to the gas and were hospitalized. Over the course of about nine hours, the five contractors struggled to stop the leaks with plastic bags, and to remove the melted gasket.
Samsung did not immediately report the leak to authorities, in breach of regulations. However, the local government of the Gyeonggi-do province has exempted the company from a higher version of safety inspections. On a regular round of inspections of local factories less than three months ago, the government failed to inspect the gasket that leaked Jan. 27, Newsis News reported.
The leak accident revealed that Samsung has been outsourcing safety management to contractors, despite being heavily dependent on hazardous materials in chip production. It also showed contract workers are more likely to be exposed to hazardous conditions. Last year, after a series of revelations of excessive overtime and irregularities at its Chinese contractors, Samsung promised to improve working conditions across its supply chain.
However, harsh working conditions are not limited to its overseas contractors. In October 2012, SHARPS profiled Kim Ki-cheol, 27 years old, who was diagnosed with acute leukemia after having worked as a contract wafer operator at the Hwaseong plant since 2006.
As of March 2012, SHARPS has profiled 155 workers who contracted various forms of leukemia, multiple sclerosis, and aplastic anemia after employment in the electronics industry in South Korea. As of June 2, 2012, 63 of the 155 have died. The majority of the workers, 138, were employed at Samsung Electronics, Samsung Electro-Mechanics and Samsung SDS—the three electronics affiliates of the Samsung Group, the country’s largest conglomerate. Among the 63 deaths were 56 Samsung employees.
Correction 1: The original version of this story said Samsung did not contact authorities during the first 15 hours after the leaks. However, a Samsung spokesman on Jan. 28 evening said that the casket began to leak on Jan. 27 about at 11am. The contract workers began to repair the leak at 11pm. Samsung did not report the leaks for 26 hours after the leaks. The post has been revised to reflect the correction.
Correction 2: The original version of this story cited a Herald News report and said during its latest inspection of the Samsung plant four months ago, the government did not inspect the casket that leaked Jan. 28 However, Newsis News cited a government source and said the province government did not inspect the casket during inspections it performed of 28 plants in its jurisdiction on Oct. 11-17, 2012. The post has been revised to reflect the correction.
Correction 3: The original version of this story cited several Korean press reports and said the dead maintenance worker did not wear a protective suit. On Jan. 29, Samsung confirmed the 34-year-old known as Park actually wore a protective suit after protests by his family. The post has been revised to reflect the correction.