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About 26 hours after the first leak on Jan. 27, South Korean police began to investigate the site of Samsung’s Hwaseong plan where yet-undetermined amounts of hydrofluoric acid gas were released.

Neighboring elementary schools have postponed new semesters in fear of fallout from recent chemical leaks at a nearby Samsung plant.  The surrounding community is unsettled with anger and frustration.  However, nine days after leaks of hydrofluoric acid gas that killed one worker and injured four at its plant south of Seoul, Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. continues to cover up the fatal incidents with more lies.  The following is a quick rundown of new facts that the world’s largest chipmaker had been covering up since this blog’s last post:

Fact 1

Samsung said of the Jan. 27-28 leaks as the first-of-its-kind incident.  However, it was not the first time that hydrofluoric acid gas, a virulent and deadly impurity remover for semiconductor wafers, has leaked at the Hwaseong plant.  The conservative Chosun Il bo quoted a study conducted in 2011 by Dr. Suh Byung-seong, of Sungkyunkwan University and Kangbuk Samsung Hospital, and reported that a 37-year-old male worker was treated in Sept. 2010 after exposures to the acid gas. 

Prof. Suh’s study did not name Samsung’s Hwaseong plant as the site of the leak and instead described it as a semiconductor plant with 20,000 employees.  However, Samsung confirmed the incident, saying “a contract worker was exposed to the leak [three years ago].”  This is particularly outrageous because while Samsung concealed the leak from authorities in breach of law, a professor who teaches at a university and a hospital that Samsung owns, could still conduct a study of the victim. 

Fact 2

Initial press reports put the volume of the January 28-29 leaks at ten liters.  Later, Samsung said it was about two or three liters.  However, an autopsy of the 34-year-old victim known by his last name Hwang turned up a blister larger than one centimeter in the respiratory path, suggesting that the amounts of the leaks exceeded the capacity of his gasmask’s filter.   The exact volume of the leaks has yet to be determined.

Fact 3

Samsung ordered the four workers who were dispatched to the leak from contractor STI Service to patch up the leaks with absorption pads and plastic bags although the workers reported that the melted gasket needed immediate replacement, according to an opposition lawmaker who interviewed one of the four workers. 

It was about 11:30pm, about nine hours after the first leak, when Samsung management agreed to the replacement. Hwang, who ultimately died due to his exposure to the leak, had to work on the leak during his first hours on the site without wearing a protective suit because Samsung had urged him to stop the leak immediately so production would not be interrupted. 

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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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