Poison Valley

By Jim Fisher


Salon Staff
August 2, 2001 10:40PM (UTC)

Read "Poison Valley," Part 1 and Part 2.

I've read the first part of Fisher's two-part report on increased cancer rates in technology manufacturing workers, and all I can do is scoff.

These people have absolutely no reason to bitch. There are many coal miners, lumberjacks and construction workers who experience greater risks and increased mortality rates than those in the article. These [tech workers] are exceedingly lucky to have such a safe, well-paying job. It's become an American modus operandi to demand perfect safety in all things and for all time, and to find someone to blame if things fail to meet those standards.

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As a molecular biologist working in a lab I know that statistically my life will be foreshortened by about seven years due to the chemicals inherent in the environment in which I work. I know of this and the possibility of other dangers and I accept that because this is my profession.

These people who got ill in greater numbers due to exposure to chemicals in the workplace are most deserving of sympathy, but the pretense that they simply had no idea it could be harmful is another matter.

-- Gregory Dyas

Well, I read Part 2, and I still think you are painting with far too broad a brush. You mention ARC again in the wrap-up, despite the fact that there's only the most tenuous link between the research that started IBM's chip manufacturing and the contamination problems that are the focus of the article. After all, it's not like the lab guys get to set the worker safety standards!

And again, the comparison to mercury mining is way off base. Those mercury miners would have thought they'd died and gone to heaven to get a job in a chip fab plant!

Lumping in software companies in the "what new terrors will the future hold" paragraphs is also complete B.S. The only worker safety problem you could possibly find at those companies is carpal tunnel syndrome, and perhaps the usual overwork-related items of headaches and eyestrain. Software is pure office work and has no impact on the environment. Since it's uniquely suited to telecommuting, it even has less impact on traffic than other forms of office work.

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It's also wrong to lump the systems manufacturers like Apple in with the chip makers. As far as I know, making systems is completely chemical-free -- they just snap together components made elsewhere. You might have some solvents used in circuit board manufacture -- though I've heard that water shortages have made them clean up some of that.

Anyway, if I were writing this, I'd have thrown out all the blame spread outside the basic chip-manufacturing facilities. Most of the rest of the valley, including all the leading-edge companies (which concentrate on software, not chips), is as clean as it's possible for a company to be.

For the chip companies that remain, you've got a point. Still, it's strange what people will put up with. You quote Joe LaDou:

In the early days, it was not unusual to see people in first-stage anesthesia -- fairly drunk, staggering -- from solvent exposure. We treated literally dozens of hydrofluoric acid burns every day. The safety and health provisions in these companies were primitive at best.

Who puts up with this?! It's not like chip fabrication workers are particularly well paid. I used to get midnight snacks at the IBM company cafeteria on Cottle Road, during third shift lunch. That's as blue collar a crowd as you could find. Some of the jobs are so mind-numbing, you couldn't pay me any amount to do them. But from their talk, none of them made much doing it. If I had to put up with health problems as well, or even just foul stinks all day, I'd find another job. It can't be that horrible to work retail!

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That might seem like an irrelevant point, but as you note in the article, it's the economics that drive all this. The companies are not out to deliberately poison people. Most of the managers probably think it's smelly, dull work, but no worse than a factory or farm. And the managers live with the exact same environment, since they are looking over the shoulders of these people all the time.

The bottom line is that these jobs only get better when it gets harder to find people to do them. Then either the salaries go up to compensate or the conditions get better. (Or they move the jobs overseas, where poor people are happy to take them!)

It does seem as if the companies deliberately look the other way. They lobby against safety legislation and don't spend much money to analyze the hazards. Part of the reason is that corporations rightly live in terror of both the legislature and the legal system. Either one can suddenly focus on some detail and assess random, unpredictable and huge damages on a company, no matter how hard it tries to be safe.

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And it's completely true that a company that routinely monitored employee health in order to find the first sign of a problem would also be providing ammunition to the other side in a lawsuit. For most big companies, and all small companies, the only way to deal with the law is to try not to attract any attention.

Some kind of reform in this area would go a long way toward making companies be more responsible. As it is, companies have to balance safety (to avoid lawsuits in the first place) with creating too detailed a paper trail (which means they lose all the lawsuits, justified or frivolous). After all, in any set of detailed records, you are going to be able to find some correlation -- two people who worked in a clean room together and both got the same cancer. In court, it won't matter that this is like two people in a room having the same birthday. You'll lose regardless, and read press stories about your gross negligence!

Finally, don't forget the huge role played by incompetence in all of this. I know, IBM is a big company, has lots of money and presents itself as a company made of über-technocrats who do everything for the best of reasons. But if you've dealt with the insides of any piece of technology, or any company of any kind (including technology companies), you'll know that this is not the case. Most software and hardware products barely work -- they are layers of quick fixes and sloppy compromises, barely held together by occasional bits of competence. The companies are the same way.

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I could go on, but the point is that no matter how good a company's intentions are, and no matter how much it spends on safety (IBM has its own fire department and hazmat team), it will still look like Keystone Cops if you study its track record in detail. Which means that in court, it'll lose most of the time. Which means it'll do anything to avoid going to court, including settling most claims out of court, lobbying against tougher laws and avoiding too much analysis of its track record.

Your article never addresses the basic problem with any of this -- chip fabrication is unskilled labor, and can be done anywhere in the world. The best you can hope for is to export this, along with all the other dirty work of the American economy. Is that what we want?

-- Michael Goodfellow, IBM Research employee, 1981 to 1989

I'm a network engineer. I spent three years working for a semiconductor manufacturer in the valley. One of the things it had was training on the processes, chemicals, etc., involved as part of its safety program. Also, there were lots of engineers there who liked to talk about the whole semiconductor business and technology arena. That's my familiarity level.

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As an aside, one of my responsibilities was the change-out of dumb terminals and terminal servers in the fab. These things only reliably lasted a year or two in the fabrication environment due to corrosion -- that tells you something.

My interest and undergraduate training were in energy production. So when I have the opportunity to let people know that "clean" energy production is a very relative term, I take it.

-- Richard Dunn

Your brilliant article on toxic waste and worker exposure to toxic materials of all sorts was, sadly, all too familiar. I live in Connecticut, a state that used to be one of the main manufacturing centers of the country -- and home to firms that routinely forced workers to use deadly materials in daily work.

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From radium painted onto clock dials with bristle brushes that workers moistened with their tongues (nice cancer effect) to hat makers driven mad by brain destruction from inhaling corrosive mercury compounds, Connecticut has, or used to have, it all. Streams ran multicolored rainbows of toxic electroplating chemical wastes in Hartford, where Royal and Underwood made their typewriters and Colt made guns. We don't even notice when Ensign-Bickford Co. loses the occasional mixing shed. After all, it makes the world's most powerful explosives and such things do happen.

One of my uncles lies resting in a company-funded grave in Collinsville, a victim of inhaling dust from grinding wheels as he sharpened axes (without any dust mask, of course). Beryllium doesn't kill off people as much as it used to, nor do metal dusts cause cancer in machine shop workers. Most of the manufacturing industry has gone down South or to foreign countries where the same toxic conditions exist. The primary polluter is our own MDC, the water company that supplies the Capitol Region. Overflow lines dump millions of gallons of raw sewage into the rivers, because money from federal cleanup funds never did get spent to fix treatment plants and expand their capabilities. Wethersfield, my hometown, had a flood of sewage -- some 11 million gallons -- a few years ago.

Nobody wants to notice such things. It is not in the best interests of businesses, which still control our government and our political parties. But MDC itself did have warnings applied to the pavement around all storm drains -- letting us know that the water empties into our river, the river that MDC is primary polluter of. Scratch the soil near any stream in my state and you'll find contaminated soil, a reminder of the thousands of water-powered mills and factories that once operated here. Everywhere. The problem simply cannot be solved -- it is far too widespread. So have fun covering the latest, greatest problems, but always remember, Connecticut was first!

-- Nils Dahl

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In all of these scare stories, I often see the quote that clean-room garments are designed to protect the sensitive substrates as they are processed into chips or disk drives. They keep human contaminants from destroying the product. They were never designed to protect skin from chemical exposure and anyone who thinks they do or should is woefully, perhaps fatally, misinformed and has no business working in a semiconductor fabrication plant or writing about one.

When working around hazardous chemicals, employees are supposed to wear the proper protective clothing (rubber gloves, aprons, respirators, etc.) depending on the operation at hand. If operators' garments are being fouled by chemicals such that their clothes underneath the suits or their skin comes into contact with the chemical, that's a big problem and the fault of management at all levels -- but not the fault of the clean-room suit. And having bottled gases in industry is nothing new. Handled properly, by trained personnel, they do not just blow up or leak. I'm curious if the author ever looked into any of the root causes and corrective actions that were implemented as a result of the more extreme examples he cites.

Don't IBM employees undergo new-employee orientation where they are told about the chemicals they are working with and how properly to handle them? Are there no material safety data sheets readily available in clearly marked locations that they can refer to for the proper handling methods for said chemicals as required by law? Aren't there regular safety meetings and safety audits? Aren't there preventive maintenance systems in place to routinely check systems and detect failures before they occur? How are accidents or employee complaints tracked for effective elimination of any workplace hazards? And why are ventilation systems allowed to function if they leak hazardous vapors into the work environment? That's a design or implementation problem of the affected piece of equipment and would not be permitted to run in any of our facilities. And as for 90 percent recirculated air in a clean room, that's far too much. We use anywhere from 20 to 30 percent fresh incoming air in our clean rooms.

If employees are experiencing acid burns, dizziness, sinus problems, etc., and are dutifully reporting them, these events must all be thoroughly investigated and resolved to the satisfaction of the employee unions or factory representatives using proven, cost-effective solutions.

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Occasionally, we have found that an employee may not be taking the necessary time to properly use the correct safety equipment, and training is modified or reinforced as required. Repeated accidents from the same employee could result in termination. Who wants to work with someone who cannot follow instructions and endangers the rest of his or her crew? And in today's litigious society, any company that doesn't ensure that its employees follow proper safety precautions is asking for problems.

Articles like yours do nothing but scare people about manufacturing in the high-tech sector. IBM, the topic of this article, may have been lax in its enforcement of what surely must be documented safety procedures and that needs to be addressed and corrected, with restitution paid if need be. But to tell the public that these people work in environments where their work clothes are routinely soiled by hazardous chemicals because clean-room suits don't protect them is doing a disservice to your readers. In a properly run manufacturing environment with the right emphasis on safety, employee empowerment and proper training (and retraining), there's no reason that workplace safety should be compromised. (Personally, I'm not comfortable in bunny suits, but people tell me they get used to them in time. I do enjoy the air in our clean rooms, however. Those HEPA filters remove all pollens and the air inside with its controlled humidity feels wonderful.)

If these allegations are true, there is certainly a problem at IBM. But don't blame the clean-room suits or the chemicals or their manufacturers! I do not believe this story is telling of the industry as a whole but, rather, is picking up on some very real and terrifying neglect that is most certainly the exception.

For the record, I am employed as a quality engineer with Wacker Siltronic, currently on assignment at the parent company in Burghausen, Germany.

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-- Tom Nagy

Clean-room air is polluted because management keeps the fresh-air ventilation systems turned off (or down) to save money on heating and air conditioning bills. Air is free, but fresh outside air brought into a 70-degree clean room gets heated or air-conditioned at great expense to the corporation and its stockholders. No plant manager is going to throw out great volumes of expensively conditioned, polluted air if he can get away with recirculating it back into the work environment. The money saved is all profit. Employees who question this practice get fired. Should a government investigator come to make an inspection, it's no problem to turn the ventilation system on for the duration of his visit.

I briefly lived through just that situation a few years back while working in the clean room of a local compact disc factory. It was both amusing and sad to watch management create an "illusion of safety" by sponsoring safety mascot contests and focusing attention on comparatively trivial safety matters while at the same time withholding material safety data sheets, intimidating employees who wore gas masks and, in general, keeping employees in the dark concerning the major real hazard of the solvent vapors trapped in our production rooms. Everything was done to draw attention away from the fumes in the work environment. Asking "Will you please turn up the exhausts?" was all it took to jeopardize one's employment.

One final lesson: "Government protection" isn't. Good luck getting any objective support from the government. Once snowed, the primary mission of a government labor or safety agency is self-preservation, not a safe work environment. A complainant will be flushed down the toilet before the government will admit to botched investigations. Laborers' only hope in these situations is to form unions to fight for fresh air in their work environments. If they don't succeed, they'll end up like those workers in Scotland, getting cancer at 39 years of age.

-- Anonymous


Salon Staff

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