JANUARY 31, 1986 - VOLUME 7 - NUMBER 2
Chipping Away at Workers Healthby Ellen Hosmer
In the 15 years since General Telephone and Electronics (G'1'1;) opened its plant in Albuquerque, New Mexico, hundreds of young women have worked in the plant producing semiconductors. Dozens of them worked in Department 320, an area where semiconductors were encapsulated and assembled or Department 341 where hybrids were assembled.
Today, an increasing number of GTE employees believe that a legacy of health problems has followed them home from work. Seventy-six employees and former employees, the majority of them women from Departments 320 and 341, are filing suit against GTE alleging that the 21 cases of cancer among them-including uterine, brain, thyroid and skin cancer-dozens of cases of hearing damage, blood abnormalities, menstrual disorders, deterioration of bone and cartilage, infections and disorders that they have suffered were caused by working in the company's hightech plant. Workers claim that in many cases they were exposed to hazardous chemicals without protection or proper ventilation.
This exposure to hazardous, carcinogenic and suspected carcinogenic substances has had devastating and debilitating results, charges the plaintiffs' attorney, Josephine Rohr. Forty-nine of the women who worked in Department 320 have had their uteruses removed, she said.
Lawyers in high-tech enclaves across the United States are filing suits similar to Rohr's on behalf of workers who allege they were exposed to chemicals without proper protection. Although Rohr is representing the largest number of employees in suits against any one particular plant, in Silicon Valley, home of the high tech industry, Attorney Amanda Hawes has filed well over a hundred lawsuits against high-tech companies on behalf of exposed workers.
The cases that flow steadily in represent a disturbing indictment of health and safety provisions in the electronics industry. For years, the high tech industry has capitalized on an image of being a safe workplace and a clean industrial neighbor. In Silicon Valley, where more than 150,000 jobs are provided by the electronics industry, officials in surrounding communities have often overlooked health and safety concerns.
Unfortunately, the electronics industry is neither clean nor safe. It uses thousands of hazardous chemicals. Toxic leaks in the electronic workplace occur frequently, leaving workers debilitated and groundwater contaminated. According to an internal document of Advanced Micro Devices, a large semiconductor company in Silicon Valley, leaking toxics forced the evacuation of workers 18 times within an eight month period. The report was leaked to Attorney Hawes during one of her suits against the company.
The list of toxics used in the industry includes some of the deadliest known. Solvents, acids and gases, ranging from benzene, xylene, arsine and phosphine gas, sulfuric and nitric acids, lead, trichloroethylene, freon, acetone, hydrofluoric and hydrochloric acid are used in many electronics production processes.
In semiconductor manufacturing, workers are expected to dip wafer-thin silicon that has been painted with photoresist into acid baths. The wafers are then heated in gas-filled ovens, where the gas chemically reacts with the photosensitive chemicals.
After drying, the chips are then bonded to ceramic frames, wires are attached to contacts and the chip is encapsulated with epoxy. These integrated circuits are then soldered onto boards, and the whole device is cleaned with solvents.
The potential health and safety risks to this process are immense. The silicon in the wafer and the gases used to cook it can lead to lung and respiratory ailments. The acids can cause severe burns as well as tissue and blood vessel damage. Lead can result in poisoning. The solvents and cleaners can lead to liver damage and cancer.
Exposure to solvents such as liquid freon-used to wash circuit boards--causes immediate rashes, drying and cracking of the skin. Freon also acts as a depressant on the central nervous system, and exposure in high concentrations can cause unconsciousness and death. Other solvents, including trichloroethane and methyl ketones, used in making the micro-chips, affect the central nervous system in much the same way that freon does.
According to a recent report by the Office of Technology Assessment, Reproductive Health Hazards in the Workplace, `children of solvent-exposed workers are more likely to have congenital malformations and tumors" than those whose parents were not exposed. The report warns that "three studies have implicated solvent exposure in malformations to the nervous system." Epoxies, used to protect circuit boards, are suspected carcinogens.
Lead used in soldering is another potential hazard to the reproductive system. Solder fumes may be absorbed into the bloodstream causing brain damage, paralysis, miscarriage, and sterility. Combined with acid flux which is used to clean metal during soldering and is itself linked to occupational asthma and other respiratory problems, the two make a deadly couple.
According to a 1980 study by the Finnish government, solder fumes can increase the risk of spontaneous abortion among electronics workers. The National Cancer Institute reports that high-tech workers exposed to cyanide and arsenic compounds have a higher than normal rate of oral cancer.
Another dangerous process involves making gallium arsenide micro-chips. Cheaper and faster than silicon chips, this process uses arsine gas, a combination of hydrogen and arsenic that can be fatal in high doses. Two workers in Massachusetts, one at MTI's Lincoln Laboratory and another at M/A-COM, died after inhaling toxic fumes from the gallium arsenide micro-chip production. In smaller doses, the gas is the suspected cause of skin and lung cancer.
In 1978, the California Division of Labor Statistics and Research tabulated results for occupational illnesses in the state and found that there were 1.3 illnesses per 100 workers in the electronics industry-while the average number of industrial employees with work-related illnesses was only .3.
In 1980 the number of electronics workers who had become ill while on the job remained disconcertingly high. When widespread doubt about the safety of the electronics industry surfaced, however, the numbers curiously did an about face. Within a year the reported number of worker related illnesses fell dramatically. By 1981, acknowledged worker illnesses in the semiconductor industry had dropped by 70 percent.
What looked at first like a tale of industry responsiveness, however, turned out to be just the opposite. Apparently alarmed by the growing publicity surrounding work-related illnesses, the industry had altered its counting methods so that fewer workers were included in the statistics, according to a special investigative report by KRON-TV in San Jose. "Many companies started using two sets of records on illnesses. The records they sent the state showed far fewer cases of occupational illness than their own records reflected," KRON reporter Vic Lee said in his two-part series aired in May of 1985.
The report documented several examples of companies filing inaccurate information on the number of illnesses that had occurred at the plant. At the Signetics plant in Silicon Valley, a company that has since settled out of court in a number of workers' compensation cases involving chemical exposure, the number of illnesses went from "99 to only two in two years." According to the KRON-TV report. Intersil, Siliconix and Monolithic Memories no longer reported any work-related illnesses.
Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics did a study into the reason behind the drop, it chose not to challenge the industry's new method of reporting, and instead accepted the companies' revised classification of occupational illness, agreeing that workers who become sick from a onetime chemical exposure should be classified as injured rather than ill.
"Industry throws a very big shadow across a lot of regulatory efforts," explained Attorney Hawes. Changing the definition of illness is a quick, easy way to deal with the ever increasing problem of worker exposure, she said. "It's terrible, but the statistics now look great."
For workers in the high-tech industry, there is little or no health and safety regulation, either by federal or state occupational safety and health agencies or the industry.
"Most companies aren't adequately informing or protecting workers," said David LeGrand, who is in charge of occupational safety and health for the Communications Workers of America. "CALOSHA is still looked upon as the best state operated OSHA-in terms of provisions-but companies [operating in California] did not meet these [provisions]. Companies in other states are probably getting away with murder."
Ensuring compliance with health and safety standards at large electronics plants is difficult, but in the smaller companies where work is contracted out, it is often impossible, LeGrand said. "There's absolutely no protection. Some of the situations we've seen are nightmarish."
The Reagan administration, after cutting back OSHA funding, is asking for a policy of "voluntary compliance" with safety standards from the electronics industry, paving the way for continued worker health and safety risks.
The absence of adequate regulation is compounded by the lack of credible statistics on the health effects of hightech toxics. "Workers are being exposed in mass throughout the country to chemicals [for which] the health effects are unknown," said Sam Swift, a plaintiffs' attorney in San Jose. "The problem is one of proof."
When the data are collected, Swift said, an epidemic of electronics workers debilitated by high-tech toxics may be already well underway.
The dearth of studies has made the work of plaintiffs' lawyers like Rohr, Hawes and Swift more difficult. With no data to fall back upon, plaintiffs' experts differ with company experts, leaving the judge to decide which side is correct.
In California, New Mexico and many other states, workers compensation is the sole remedy for workers to recover damages in work-related illness or injury. The difficulty of proving the case without epidemiological studies and the relatively small sums that are awarded in most workers' compensation cases has made it difficult for attorneys to find it economically feasible to take the cases of workers alleging chemical exposure.
Lawyers can spend years on a workers' compensation case and at best receive only around $30,000 for their client, said Attorney Hawes. It is not practical for the lawyer or the worker to file the case. As a result, many companies in the electronics industry continue their practices unchallenged.
"Employers have no incentive to be serious about the cases, they can drag them out," said Hawes. "They know exactly what the price is at the end of the line."
For GTE, however, things may not be so easy. Rohr, who represents all 76 of the former and current GTE employees, isn't dissuaded by the economics of the cases. Since August, 1984 when a 37-year-old GTE worker who was riddled with cancer came to her to get legal advice on what to do with $75,000 in medical bills, Rohr began what has turned into a long battle to investigate the toll the electronics industry takes on its workers.
In a conversation about her health problems, the 37-year old woman had told Rohr that "all the girls I work with" had similar problems. Shocked, Rohr took down the names of several of the woman's friends and telephoned them. "It seemed like every time I called one person she would know of at least three other persons who had had cancer or who had had their uteruses removed," recalled Rohr. "It just kept snowballing. I thought, `My God will this never stop.'"
Even today, workers continue to come to her law office asking her to represent them in workers' compensation cases against GTE. She has been forced to limit the kinds of cases she will take-all but three of the workers she represents have worked at the GTE plant for more than three years, and several have worked at the plant for more than a decade.
According to Rohr, her battle is fueled by the outrage at what she feels was GTE's handling of health and safety at the plant.
The GTE plant in Albuquerque which opened in 1971 was set up to assemble semiconductors, manufacture optical and data transmission systems, and test digital systems. The plant, originally known as GTE Lenkurt, changed its name to GTE Communication Systems in one of a series of reorganizations in the last 5 years.
Although today the plant employs only 600 people and no longer does semiconductor assembly, in its heyday more than a thousand people in the Albuquerque area were employed at the GTE plant. In its 15 year history, the plant also has used more than 500 kinds of chemicals.
In the printed circuit laboratory, workers regularly dealt with a whole host of acids, ranging from sulfuric to hydrochloric and hydrofluoric. "It was just horrible" Rohr said. "these people were breathing the acids without any masks or any protection."
"They tell me that they used to stick their hands in freon to pick up things and their hands would turn white like chalk," she said.
"It's clearly negligent," Rohr stated in a telephone interview. "All those illnesses could have been avoided with the proper ventilation and information. These women had absolutely no idea what they were working with, it's really sad to hear them talking about it."
Workers were not informed of the health effects of the chemicals they were working with nor were their complaints taken seriously, Rohr charges.
GTE maintains, however, that "there are no indications that materials used at the Albuquerque plant produced the health problems" of the workers who have filed suit. "GTE Communication Systems believes the lawsuits are without merit," said Nancy Colbert, a spokeswoman for the company. "The plaintiffs have not yet presented medical evidence to support their allegations."
The two areas where workers complained of the most health problems are no longer in Albuquerque, however. The company moved Departments 341 to Juarez, Mexico and the equipment for 320 has been shipped to El Paso, claim workers.
The company denies that the moves were in any way related to possible health problems related to working in the departments. GTE moved Department 320 to Juarez, Mexico for "economic" reasons, said Colbert. In the industrial parks along the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexican border, workers on the average earn less than a dollar an hour.
And in Mexico, the health and safety regulations and enforcement are less stringent than even the most lax of U.S. standards. Mexican workers "have no OSHA, they have no equivalent to the Environmental Protection Agency," said Rohr. "They have absolutely nothing that would monitor or protect those women."
Andrea Volpe assisted with research for this article.