March 5, 2017 marked ten years since the death of Hwang Yu-mi, the first publicly known victim of Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd.’s blood disorder cluster. In 2007, Yu-mi died in the backseat of his father’s cab on her way home from what became her last hospital visit. She was only 23 years old. It was two years after her diagnosis with acute myelogenous leukemia and three years and a half after her employment with a semiconductor line at Samsung.
Her death, and Samsung’s denial of wrongdoing , led to her father Hwang Sang-ki and his advocates forming SHARPS in 2007.
To date, SHARPS has profiled 370 occupational-disease cases. Of them, 79 former Samsung employees are now deceased, and only 14 cases won approval for workers compensation.
Meanwhile, Samsung has successfully been resisting outside efforts to enforce independent monitoring, even as its all-powerful PR machine spread an unsubstantiated impression that the world’s largest technology firm has made strides in improving workers safety.
On March 4, 2017, South Korea’s independent daily, the Hankyoreh, ran an exclusive interview with a woman who worked in the past six years in Samsung’s semiconductor lab, where Yu-mi contracted leukemia.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the 25-year-old revealed an appalling picture of Samsung’s ongoing negligence in workers safety. The following is a full translation of her interview which can be found at here. All brackets [ ] are added.
On March 3-6, SHARPS held a series of rallies, pickets and teach-ins to mark 10 years since the death of Hwang Yu-mi, the first publicly known victim of Samsung’s occupational-disease cluster.
Kim Su-mi (pseudonym), 25 years old, resigned in April 2016 from the Giheung semiconductor complex of Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd., where she had worked since 2010. This was due to fears for what could happen to her if she continued to work there. On Feb. 28, this reporter understood conditions at Samsung’s chip labs, based on an interview with Kim.
That Damn Smell
For five years and eight months since Aug. 2010, Kim was an operator at the Giheung plant. All operators of a total of 100 assigned to Line 5 were women. They were divided into four teams, working from 6am-2pm; 2pm-10pm; 10pm-6am; and 10pm-6am, on a six-day revolving shift with two days’ break.
At work, after donning clean suits, the operators put containers in and out of machines. Each container holds 25 wafers. Wafers are crystalline silicon used to fabricate integrated circuits. They used microscopes to examine defective wafers and called engineers on errors. They often ran [between lines], instead of waking. It was a simple job., but some operators were too busy to take bathroom breaks. Within a 50-minute break for lunch, they had to change suits to have meals at a cafeteria, which was five minutes away by foot. In effect, the lunch break was 20 minutes or so, which is so short that they often had to skip lunch. “Senior co-workers, who are still in contact with me, still rarely eat lunch. They binge-eat after-hours,” Kim said. Working hours were generally in compliance with eight hours a day, with infrequent overtime.
“When [“the machine’s] doors opened, the smells wafted out—something like a blend of dark chocolate and gasoline. To avoid it as much as possible, I pulled container like this,” said Kim, turning her face away as far as she could while pushing and pulling her hands together.
“They are not airtight containers. Each wafer stood in an open container. Wafers are grazed chemically. The smells continued to flare as I carried them—so did they when I had to pull out wafers to check IDs.”
Photoresist deposing, or photolithography, involved a so-called PR solution, developer, acetone and thinner. The PR solution is an amalgam of four to five chemicals. Benzene is known to be among them. In 2009 , an investigation, to determine the work-relatedness of Hwang Yumi’s death, by the Research Affairs of Seoul National University of Samsung labs turned up benzene. However, Samsung denied the finding.
“The company alleged that all chemicals are consumed within the facility” said Lim Ja-woon, SHARPS’s lawyer, who accompanied Kim, “and that workers face only marginal exposure because each production point has exhaust and emission controls.” Lim added, “what Kim said belies what Samsung alleges.” The facility’s door should be locked until the smells are exhausted, however it has been suspected that the controls were loosened because it would take long for chemicals to be dissipate completely. “Allegedly, the so-called interlocks were deliberately loosened because it would be too difficult to meet production quotas if they waited for the smells to be exhausted completely,” Lim said.
Four months into working at Samsung, Kim felt there was something wrong with her body: irregular periods. She had one period in two months at first and then in three months. Her menstruation grew increasingly irregular.
A doctor diagnosed Kim with polycystic ovary syndrome. The hormonal disorder was caused by her irregular periods, the doctor said, “it is not serious enough to be treated but needs observation.” COCP was prescribed to Kim. She recovered, only temporarily. An anxious Kim ask her co-workers about their health.
“Nine out of ten suffered from menstrual irregularity. But all were hushed about it,” said Kim. “It was a moot point as to whether this was caused by night-shift work or chemicals. But that was it. Nobody wanted to step forward.”
Leave On Your Own
There was an accident, too. In the spring of 2011, Kim, still a new employee, evacuated from her line. It was when the strongest odor of her employment of five years and eight months took hold. Extremely odorous orange gas wafted the line. The gas got thicker and thicker. Engineers could not determine the cause. The operators, on their own discretion, began to pull out.
“All left on their own because the company did not give any direction or instructions,” said Kim. “When operators acted restively, there was little option for team leaders but to say, ‘get out now anyway; a PA announcement [for pullout] will follow soon.’”
Fresh Cut Lawn Smell
A PA announcement came, only after the odor dissipated and they returned to work. “The company said it was from fresh-cut lawn. That smell seeped into the factory. It was chemical smokes and odors by anyone’s reckoning,” she said. “This company… This not what it should be, I came to thought.”
Apart from the company’s announcement of “lawn smells,” Kim did not see any further explanations or measures from the company, she recalled. “According to the report by Seoul National University in 2009, there was a log record showing that operators were not ordered to evacuate despite high-density gas leaks,” SHARPS’ Lim said. “that accident in 2011 looked the same.”
From Photolithography to Photochemical Etching
As of July 5, 2013, line 5 went offline. Lines can come and go, depending on technology. Line 5 operators were reassigned to other lines. Kim was transferred to Line 8, where she was responsible for photochemically etching circuits on wafers.
“I expected things could get better after the transfer, but there were few changes. The equipment, which they said was the latest, still generated odors. I had to inhale the nauseating smells every day,” Kim said.
Kim declined in health. Her menstrual cramps grew worse, to the point that she lived off Tylenol.
Evacuation was frequent at Line 8. In three years, there were six to eight instances. When there was a likely leak, engineers came in to determine the cause, not taking any additional measure. They were just told to stand by. They began to evacuate when the smell became too severe to be disregarded. No evacuation orders were issued. They gathered in a corner, complaining about headaches, but not daring to leave sooner than others. Engineers often took off their protective masks and sniffed about to find a leak.
“The Occupational Safety and Health Act gives a worker the right to refuse work,” said Lim. “At a unionized workplace, an occupational safety and health committee, seated by a union representative, decides whether to restart work when there is a safety risk.”
“Anyway, in this case, the company should be responsible for the evacuation and return of employees,” SHARPS’ counsel continued: “It was just irrational to have them return to work just because odors dissipated. They should have found a leak and ensured safety.”
Kim remembered that safety education was lax and conducted exclusively online once a month. They clicked their way through education on screens installed through their shop floor. After sixty clicks, “complete” showed up on-screen. It was “useless education.” There was only one legitimate education program when she was employed and when she resigned. Workers were required to attend a short five-minute discussion before regular monthly meetings and shift changes. When women operators asked about the roles of various alert systems in the workplace, they were countered: “This is an area for engineers. Do women employees really need to know?”
“What was the most absurd was what happened after Samsung’s admission of wrongdoing (in Many 2014, Samsung vice chairman and CEO Kwon Oh-hyun made an official apology to occupational-disease victims). There were many outside inspections. The unit leaders told us to answered we received [safety] education when asked during an inspection. We were told to stay after-hours to memorize answering tips and English acronyms for ethanol and so on.”
“Did they ever mention the fact that your workplace is where work-related diseases took hold,” asked Lim. “Not once during the five years and eight months of my employment there,” Kim answered, saying. “I can surely say this.”
“About half of [SHARPS’] 14 approved workers comp cases stemmed from photochemical etching jobs,” said Lim: “The occupationally caused fatal diseases in that part of the workplace means it’s a site of serious occupational accidents. They should have sufficiently warned the workers there of the risk because they worked at a more dangerous place in the factory.”
In 2015, five years into her job with Samsung, Kim went in for a comprehensive physical at a general hospital. Some of her blood measurements were low enough to necessitate her taking exams regularly. A test turned up a lump on the breasts. She needed an additional test, which she found too expensive to take. “My heath got definitely better after quitting the job,” Kim said. “It was the job that has worsened my health.” Her co-workers still work there despite their deteriorating health because they do not have alternatives, Kim added.
Over the five years and eight months of her employment with Samsung in Aug. 2010 through April 2016, Samsung’s representative director, Kwon made the apology (May 2014): the company initiated its own compensation scheme (September 2015); and it laid out measures to prevent the recurrence of an occupational disease cluster.
“It sometimes occurred to me that a disease can be hiding inside me,” said Kim. “I should have resigned after a year. All still work there because there is no other option. It is hard for them to earn that kind of wage, and this is their first job after graduating high school.”
Over the period, Kim and her co-workers felt little changed. The only noticeable change: when Kwon made the apology, Kim’s team leader wrote down a list of the diseases her team members suffered. They did know who would be informed of the list or what measures were taken because of that survey. One thing she could notice was they were since fitted with thinner masks.
“Little has changed,” said Paek Do-myung, the occupational medicine professor, of Seoul National University, who led the investigation of Samsung factory in 2009. “A normal workplace would determine the cause of the accident, notify workers of it, and closely watch the situation before restarting operations.”
“They need a manual that clearly codifies the roles of workers, managers, and safety officer,” Paek said. “They did not have one in 2009—Nor does it appear they have one now.”
“The issue is essentially simple,” Roh Sangchul, occupational medicine professor at Dankook University, said. “The way Samsung accesses the issue is secretive.”
“Samsung has an occupational health institute in-house, where there are experts,” Roh said. “Right or wrong, it will be hard for them to be impartial. They should be open to outside expertise.”
Last year Samsung agreed with SHARPS and the Family Committee to new safety measures including a third-party ombudsman committee. “If implemented a little bit, it will pry open a small hole for the first time to observe Samsung’s reclusive occupational and health measure from an independent perspective,” SHARPS opined then.
However, to date, the Ombudsman Committee has accomplished nothing.
“We opened doors to outside experts through the Ombudsman Committee which is now conducting a comprehensive review of [safety programs]. We are waiting for their findings.” a Samsung spokesperson said. “While the issue of occupational disease at semiconductor lines is not clearly substantiated anywhere in the world.” The spokesperson went on emphasizing: “This is more about how it is perceived. We need to try to see the issue objectively.”
SHARPS’s Sit-in Continues
Since Oct. 7, 2015, SHARPS and its supporters have been staging a sit-in at Samsung D’light, the company’s so-called global exhibition space in south Seoul, calling for the world’s largest technology company to: 1) compensate all victims of occupational disease transparently and sufficiently; and 2) make a sincere and full apology.