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<On Feb. 27, 2013, the South Korean police released CCTV footage of hydrofluoric acid gas leaks at Samsung.  The leaks, caused on Jan. 27-28 by gaskets that were in use beyond replacement time, killed one worker and injured four. >

The chronic safety negligence that led to chemical leaks, and ensuing cover-ups of the incidents that resulted in one death and four injuries, were not sufficiently serious for the South Korean government to pursue criminal charges against top executives at Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd.

On Feb. 27, the South Korean police said it would criminally charge seven individuals for negligence in the hydrofluoric acid leaks of Jan. 28-29 at a Samsung chip plant in Hwaseong, about 70 kilometers south of Seoul.

Among the seven individuals, a 34 years old contract worker identified by his last name of Park, died of exposure to the leaks. The other six include three employees of STI, Samsung’s contractor, and three mid-level managers of Samsung.

The negligence charges were indeed a slap on the wrist, given that the world’s largest semiconductor maker has been not only routinely violating safety regulations but also been aggressively covering up its run-ins with the law.

Following are new findings collected from the police’s announcement and media reports:

New Fact 1. Samsung Used Key Components Past Expiration Dates

The police pointed to the neglected seals and old gaskets of the gas tank as reasons for the first leak on Jan. 28. The gaskets had been used and reused past their scheduled replacement dates.

The second leak was preventable, according to the police, had new seals between the tank and the pipe been completed by the workers.

A simulation test by the police put the amount of leakages at a maximum of seven liters per hour during the first leak on Jan. 28. The government could not estimate the volume of the second leak for lack of data; a gauge collecting data of gas flows had been out of order.

Poorly maintained equipment and rushed repairs are commonplace at Samsung. Many occupational disease victims profiled by SHARPS said machines in a state of disrepair posed constant hazards.

New Fact 2. Samsung Released Fatal Gas Out Of Its Factory

The police confirmed earlier unattributed press reports that on Jan. 28, around 6:00am, Samsung and STI workers used huge ventilation fans to remove hydrofluoric acid leaks from the central chemical supply system, or the CCSS, where leaks took place.

Samsung has to date denied the fatal gas had filtrated through the CCSS.  A group of environmental volunteers found residue of hydrofluoric acid in the soil around the Hwaseong plant, which is ringed by housing compounds.

New Fact 3. Samsung Effectively Turned Off Sensor Alarm

According to the police, though the sensor in the CCSS was fully functional during the leaks, the volume of its alarm was reduced to inaudible levels. Samsung allowed STI employees to replace the corroded gaskets on Jan. 27 at 2:11pm, about four hours after the contract workers requested a replacement from a Samsung supervisor.

It wasn’t until 6:08pm, about 16 hours after the leak, when a Samsung security officer showed up at the CCSS.

On March 15, a multi-agency taskforce will announce its findings.

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A bird’s eye view of Samsung’s Hwaseong plant where hydrofluoric-acid leaks Jan. 28 killed one worker and injured four others. Samsung did not contact authorities for 26 hours after the chemical leaks although the plant is ringed largely with residential homes.

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.

Fatal Leaks

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.

Exemption

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.

Risky Outsourcing

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.

On SHARPS

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.

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