Unsafe working conditions at Samsung plant caused worker’s death in South Korea

An agency of the South Korean government on Friday, December 14 announced that a Samsung factory was responsible for the breast cancer that ended the life of a 36-year old woman who worked in the factory. Korean Workers Compensation and Welfare Services (KCOMWEL) said in an announcement about its ruling that carcinogens such as radiation and organic solvents were present at Samsung’s semiconductor factory in Giheung.

The agency also said that the dead woman, who was identified only by her family name Kim because family members did not want to release her given name, worked a night shift, and the agency referenced studies that show a link between the increased incidence of breast cancer and night shift work.

Ms. Kim, who was 36 when she passed away in May, worked at the Samsung semiconductor plant in Giheung between 1995 and 2000. She was married and had two children. She was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer three years ago.

The ruling in Ms. Kim’s case was the second time that KCOMWEL has determined that unsafe conditions in a Samsung plant have caused a serious disease. In April the agency found that the conditions at the Samsung semiconductor plant in Onyang were responsible for the aplastic anemia diagnosed in another young woman worker. Nearly 30 workers have filed workers compensation claims against Samsung for conditions including cancer, multiple sclerosis, and brain tumors, but so far, the agency has ruled in only these two cases.

SHARP, a coalition of Korean labor and progressive groups that has been fighting to improve worker safety in the semiconductor industry, said that unsafe working conditions at Samsung are responsible many other serious illnesses among workers. In 2010, SHARP reported that there were 26 known cases of leukemia and lymphoma among workers at Sumsung’s Giheung and Onyang plants. Ten of those who contracted the disease had died.

In 2011, Elizabeth Grossman writing for Yale Environment 360 reported that “as of March 2011, Korean labor and occupational health activists have counted 120 . . . cases of severe illnesses” among Samsung workers, which have resulted in 46 deaths.

Many of those who contracted the illnesses, which include various forms of cancer, went to work for Samsung when they were young and became ill like Ms. Kim when they were still quite young.

Goodman writes that workers in semiconductor plant clean rooms are exposed to high levels of carcinogenic chemicals. Clean rooms are a closed environments designed to keep dust from contaminating semiconductor chips and the equipment that manufacturers them. Clean room air is laced with vapors from toxic chemicals such as benzene, trichloroethylene (TCE), and methylene chloride that are used during the manufacturing process.

“In an 8-hour shift — or the longer shifts worked in Asia — clean room workers are breathing a cauldron of chemicals,” said Joseph LaDou, former director of the International Center for Occupational Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco to Goodman.

The air is recirculated rapidly, which increases worker exposure to the chemicals.

The protective gear worn by workers, known as “bunny suits,” do little to protect workers because, according to SHARP, they are designed primarily to protect the semiconductor chips rather than workers. SHARP also said that while Samsung has installed protective devices in some clean rooms, they are sometimes turned off when production falls behind.

Radiation exposure is another problem. KCOMWEL said that when Ms. Kim was working for Samsung the plant where she worked had no radiation detectors.

SHARP says that Samsung’s no-union policy is largely responsible for the unsafe working conditions at the company’s factories. Because workers have no collective voice on the job, there is no pressure to make worker safety a priority. SHARP also notes that Samsung has gone to great lengths to keep workers from organizing a union. Union supporters have been fired, harassed, physically threatened, spied on, and even prosecuted for libel.

Until Friday’s ruling, Samsung has always maintained that working conditions at its plants are not responsible the high incidence of illnesses on the job, but after KCOMWEL ruled that Ms. Kim’s death was caused by unsafe working conditions, Samsung said that it would not appeal the ruling.