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On July 26, a huge water tank collapsed at the Samsung Fine Chemicals plant, leaving three workers dead and 12 injured. Source: SBS News

Three workers were killed and 12 injured on the late afternoon of July 26 when a huge water tank burst during a stress test at the Samsung Fine Chemicals Co., Ltd. plant in Ulsan, South Korea.

The 1,300-ton water tank erupted when it was filled with roughly 1,000 tons of water as part of the stress test, according to the independent daily Hankyoreh.  The eruption brought down the 17-meter support structure that fell upon the 15 workers.

Samsung Fine Chemicals proceeded with the test, despite the cracks it had found earlier, a probe by SHARPS found.  All 15 victims are contract workers in their twenties.

Disastrous Self Inspection

Many of the South Korean conglomerate Samsung Group’s 80-plus affiliates have high regulatory ratings that exempt them from regular safety inspections.  The regulatory ratings system is flawed because it incentivizes  the Samsung companies to cover up industrial and occupational incidents in order to remain exempt from government inspections.

This in turn has made Samsung plants vulnerable to industrial injury and fatality as seen in the following rundown for the current 2013 alone:

 Jan. 27-28  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 a chip plant in Hwaseong, about 70 kilometers south of Seoul, in Jan. 27-28.
 April 14  A leak of chlorine gas injured two employees and four contract workers at the Ulsan plant of Samsung Fine Chemical.
 May 2  Another leak of hydrofluoric acid injured three workers at the same plant where two acid leaks killed one contractor and four others in January.
 July 24  A fire occurred at a ventilation facility in Kihung.
 July 25  A leak of ammonia gas injured four workers at the Hwaseong plant, the site of the fatal gas leaks in January.

Samsung’s Next Cash Cow?

The water tank failure took place at an expanded plant under construction, whereupon completion, Samsung Fine Chemicals and SunEdison (formerly MEMC) of the US will jointly produce polysilicon, a key component of solar energy cells.

In what it dubs a strategic shift, Samsung has recently been attempting to diversify away from memory chips and home electronics goods and to enter the solar energy and medical equipment markets.

Whatever strategy it adopts, Samsung has shown little willingness to improve labor safety or sustainability.

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On July 30, SHARPS and tens of labor and community advocates mounted pickets in protest of the fatal water tank failure at Samsung Fine Chemicals. Source: SHARPS

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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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An attempt by an independent publisher to get the word out about more than a hundred victims of occupational diseases at Samsung has hit an unexpected snag, after most of South Korea’s handful of independent media outlets refused to take advertisements for a set of two comic books about the outbreak of a variety of blood disorders at Samsung’s electronics affiliates.

As of March 2012, SHARPS has profiled 155 workers who contracted various forms of leukemia, multiple sclerosis and aplastic anemia after years of employment in the electronics industry in South Korea.

Of the 155, 62 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 62 deaths were 55 Samsung employees.

In April 2012, Bori Publication Co., Ltd. approached about six independent print and online publications to place ads for two comics, The Smell of Humanity and A Dustless Room.  Only two publications, online daily Pressian and independent daily Hankyoreh’s Internet TV unit Hani TV, took the ads.  One publication rejected the ad after the publisher refused to remove references to Samsung from copy.  Another publication rejected it, citing a conflict of interest between sponsors because Samsung is also a sponsor.  A third publication demanded high premiums for the ads.

Samsung controls the lion’s share in the advertisement market.  According to a survey, in 2008 the Samsung Group made up 40 percent of a total marketing and advertisement expenses of the country’s ten largest chaebols, or family-owned conglomerates.

Paradoxically, their financial vulnerability often leaves smaller and independent media more susceptible to Samsung’s pressure, tacit or otherwise.  In fairness, the six publications ran favorable reviews of the two comic books.

The Smell of Humanity is about the father of a 21-year-old woman worker who died of leukemia after having working for two years at a semiconductor lab of Samsung Electronics.

A Dustless Room is about how Samsung’s clean rooms, where semiconductors are produced in an isolated environment, were designed and run to protect the integrity of chips at the cost of the workers’ safety.

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The Smell of Humanity and A Clean Room, the two comic books about victims of occupational diseases at Samsung

Bori and SHARPS are relying on word of mouth and Twitter for the promotion of the books.  The Smell of Humanity and A Dustless Room currently rank second and third on the top 100 comic books on Aladdin.co.kr, one of South Korea’s largest online bookstores.

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