US experts on occupational safety, “Samsung leukemia incidents are industrial accidents”

Disclaimer: The following is a totally unauthoritative personal translation of an article appeared in SisaIN Live on Nov. 28, 2012, reporting international experts’ survey result of Samsung Semiconductor workers leukemia and other rare cancers. All rights regarding this post stay with the author(s) of the original article or with SisaIN Live and this post will be scrapped immediately at their request. In the post, I tried to match the English translation of names of people / institution(s) / position(s) to authentic one(s) as much as possible but, unfortunately, some of them still can be different. Original article of this post (in Korean) can be found in the link below.

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Samsung Electronics Inc. issued a press release on last Mar. 22 claiming that US occupational health and safety consulting firm Environ Global’s examination on leukemia incidences of former Samsung employees was confirmed by International Committee of Occupational Health (ICOH) at 2012 ICOH Conference held in Cancun, Mexico. Last year, commissioned by Samsung, Environ Global concluded that “Samsung former employees’ leukemia cases were not associated with their working environment.” Although they simply ‘presented’ this at ICOH conference, Samsung publicized it as a ‘confirmation’. The next day, major media such as <Chosun Ilbo> even relayed Samsung Electronics Environment Safety Team leader Mr. Dong-hoon Han’s comment “The most prestigious international conference confirmed that working environment of Samsung Electronics is not faulty.”

But because of this, Samsung had to be openly rebuked by ICOH that “Confirmation is not correct.” A Samsung official described it as ‘a happening due to public relations team’s too much enthusiasm.’

ⓒSisaIN archive
A performance on Dec. 2010 urging Samsung Electronics’ engagement for resolving former employees’ leukemia incidents.

83 experts responded

Even after that, Samsung continued to use the international conference presentation for domestic PR drive. In last June, they presented the same investigation results at 2012 American Industrial Hygiene Association Conference. They set on an all-out publicity drive using the Environ Global’s reports.

Then, what would international experts really think about ‘Samsung leukemia incidents’? <SisaIN> conducted a survey with the help of members of internationally renowned American Public Health Association (APHA). Founded in 1872, APHA has been one of the most time-honored prestigious group of experts participating in diverse activities of public health issues. In particular, we focused on members of Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) section that specializes in occupational hazards and diseases. Following steering committee’s review, survey questionnaires of <SisaIN> were delivered to OHS members through email. The survey was conducted during Sep. 22 ~ Oct. 31 and totally 83 members responded to this survey. OHS section chairperson Walter Jones said “more than expected.”

First, without mentioning ‘Samsung’, we asked if members were aware of leukemia and rare cancer incidents among Korean semiconductor workers. 27(32.9%) respondents said they were unaware of them but a lot more (67.1%) said they were aware; 20(24.4%) were aware of them a little bit, 21(25.6%) had some knowledge on them and 14(17.1%) knew them very much.

Then, mentioning ‘Samsung’ explicitly, we asked if those workers with leukemia or rare cancers had been mostly Samsung Electronics employees. 51(61.4%) said they were aware of it as well and 32(38.6%) said they were not aware of it. When cross-analyzed the first and second questions, those who knew Korean workers’ leukemia incidents knew exactly that they had been mostly ‘Samsung Electronics employees’.

We then presented respondents full reports on exposure evaluation and exposure reconstruction evaluation by Environ Global. We also presented them a recent Korean experts’ paper ‘Leukeima and non-Hodgkin lymphoma in semiconductor industry workers in Korea’ published in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health contending that leukemia development in Korean semiconductor workers is associated with their working environment. These were to expose respondents to two contradicting arguments on the association between leukemia/rare cancer development and the working environment. We also presented them Korean administrative court’s ruling on the industrial accident recognition case between the bereaved and Korean Workers’ Compensation and Welfare Service (KWCWS). And we asked the respondents to guage their confidence against Samsung’s claim, Environ’s reports, claim by the bereaved and court’s ruling on a scale of 1 to maximum 10. We wanted them to put 10 on an argument if they fully believed it and 1 if they didn’t believe it at all.

Samsung’s claim that various rare cancers are not related to working environment scored the lowest confidence by the average 1.81. 46(58.2%) respondents put 1 indicating that they didn’t believe it at all. As a whole, they didn’t believe Samsung’s argument such that 15 respondents put 2, 9 put 3, 5 put 4.

Such low credibility was carried over to Environ Global’s reports as well. Though slightly up from Samsung’s claim, they scored an average 2.43. 31(40.3%) respondents put 1, the lowest credibility score. Samsung has been publicizing these reports very credible since they were produced by Environ Global, world-leading occupational safety and health consulting firm, with the consultancy of a group of international occupational health experts from top notch universities such as Harvard, Yale, Michigan, Johns Hopkins. However, reports have caused huge controversy among Korean scholars and experts since they were based on the examination of limited work sites and materials of Samsung’s own at present time instead of examining exposure to hazardous materials under the similar working environment when diseased workers in the past had worked.

One member who responded to the survey pointed out “risk evaluation can be accurate only when it is based on the exposure evaluation under past working environment at least 10 years ago not the exposure evaluation under current working environment.” Regarding low score on Environ Global’s reports, researcher at George Washington University (Occupational Epidemiology) Dr. Seung-sup Kim commented “Environ Global has been advocating companies’ arguments presenting reports that reduce or deny correlation between things such as chromium exposure or indirect smoking and lung cancer that are so obvious by now. I think this kind of negative impression is reflected on this survey result.”

To the contrary, the claim of the bereaved that “leukemia or rare cancer development is due to working environment” pointed 6.9 much higher than scores of Samsung’s claim or Environ Global’s reports. The bereaved had filed a lawsuit against KWCWS demanding industrial accident recognition of leukemia or rare cancer development. For the first time, Seoul Regional Administrative Court ruled in favor of 2 out of 5 that had filed the lawsuit, granting the industrial accident recognition. We asked the respondents how much they would trust Korean court’s ruling. On average, it scored the highest 7.31.

“Korean court’s ruling is trustworthy” marked the highest score

To those who responded to the survey, we directly asked their opinion whether the leukemia incidents of Samsung employees could have been associated with working environment and hence they could be industrial accidents. No one responded that they would not be associated with each other. Only 1(1.2%) respondent said that the association would be ‘low’. On the other hand, 28(34.6%) responded that it would be highly likely that leukemia incidents were associated with working environment and industrial accidents and 9(11.1%) responded that their leukemia incidents were surely associated with working environment and surely industrial accidents. Among respondents, 45.7% looked those leukemia incidents as industrial accidents.

When cross-examined with the questionnaire of the recognition of Samsung leukemia incidents, 71.4% of those who were well aware of them and 57.1% of those who knew them thought those incidents as industrial accidents. Substantial number of those who knew Samsung leukemia incidents regarded them as industrial accidents. One who proactively asserted ‘Samsung leukemia incidents’ as industrial accidents remarked “Industrial accidents occurring in Asian semiconductor processing factories are deeply associated with the global relocation of Silicon valley processing facilities to Asian countries.” This respondent then added “Semiconductor business is never a clean industry. The underground water in Silicon valley area is still polluted.”

ⓒSisaIN Archive
Mr. Sang-ki Hwang, father of the late Ms. Yoo-mi Hwang, tumbled down while protesting in front of Samsung Headquarter in June last year.

Rare cancer development among semiconductor industry workers is not an alien subject to American occupational health experts at all. From about 10 years ago, rare cancer development among IBM workers has been a social issue in US as well. About 200 who developed cancer while working in IBM and about 50 children who had various congenital disabilities filed a class action lawsuit against IBM. Also, in 2003, Mr. James Moor who got non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (died in Oct. 2004) and Ms. Alida Hernandez who got breast cancer filed lawsuits against IBM claiming that the company intentionally had concealed the fact of their cancer development from exposure to toxic chemicals.

58.8% respondents “they deserve compensation”

During the course of lawsuit, a log of deceased people that documented personal particulars of 31961 IBM employees who had died during 1969 ~ 2001 was revealed to public. A Boston University epidemiologist Dr. Clapp uncovered that the cancer-related mortality rate among IBM workers was way higher than that of average American people. Compared with average American people, that of brain cancer was 4 times, multiple myeloma 6 times, breast cancer twice as high among IBM workers. During the lawsuit, IBM also relied on individual disease argument unrelated to working environment like Samsung. But they agreed to pay compensation. American industrial accident insurance system varies from state to state but IBM agreed to compensate its workers who had filed compensation lawsuits using industrial insurance fund.

We also asked APHA respondents about compensation to Samsung leukemia workers. Regarding a questionnaire if they deserve compensation, no one replied ‘they do not deserve indemnity at all’. 25% (20) replied ‘they may deserve it or maybe not’, 13.8% (11) replied ‘they deserve it’ and 45% (36) replied ‘they should be compensated’. 58.8% of respondents considered compensation as necessary. One respondent said “The industrial accident compensation system should work in favor of workers even if the scientific causal relationship between disease and working environment is not clear. This is a prevailing principle working on American workers and employers as well.”

Then, we asked “Who should be the most responsible for preventing further occurrence of leukemia or rare cancers?” allowing multiple choices. Among 83 respondents, 73 (92.4%) picked employer (Samsung), 62 (78.5%) picked government including Ministry of Labor, 32 (40.5%) picked occupational safety experts, 14 (17.7%) picked workers themselves and 9 (11.4%) picked mass media.

“Company should be forced to use alternative chemicals”

As occupational safety experts, they did not spare poignant criticisms toward company and government. One respondent blasted “Samsung should be ashamed of their profit-only demeanor.” Another respondent added “To stop possible exposure to toxic chemicals in the future, government should force companies to use alternative materials.” But, above all, most echoed the same thing in unison, ‘Samsung’s heart-felt apology.’ Although many expressed the opinion “Samsung should bear the heavy responsibility and apologize to the bereaved and current workers sincerely” but they all deemed it very unlikely. One respondent derided “Samsung is only interested in making money rather than work place security or workers’ health.”

The 83 members of APHA OHS section that participated in the present survey included 25(40.3%) researchers or epidemiologists, 20(32.3%) occupational hygiene experts, 13(21%) occupational health experts and nurses and teachers. Their ages were in the order of 50s (24, 29.3%), 60s (19, 23.2%), 30s (18, 22%) and 40s (14, 17.1%). 34(42%) of them have been working in the field of occupational safety/disease for over 20 years, 21(25.9%) for 10 ~ 20 years, 11(13.6%) for 5 ~ 10 years and so on. They were veterans in the field.

Samsung leukemia incident timeline

Aug. 2006 Ms. Sook-young Lee(31; Samsung Electronics) died of leukemia.

Mar. 6, 2007 Ms. Yoo-mi Hwang(23) who worked with Ms. Sook-young Lee as a team also died of leukemia.
Sep. 9, 2007 Epidemiological examination by Occupational Safety and Health Research Institute (OSHRI) concluded that leukemia was not related to working environment.
Nov. 20, 2007 Sharps was founded.

Apr.~Nov. 2008 OSHRI conducted a fact-finding epidemiological survey of 200000 domestic semiconductor industry workers’ health. It concluded that disease and working environment was not related.

May 2009 KWCWS declined 6 people’s (including the late Ms. Yoo-mi Hwang’s & Sook-young Lee’s) applications for industrial accident recognition.

Jan. 2010 The bereaved of the late Ms. Yoo-mi Hwang et al. filed an industrial accident recognition lawsuit against KWCWS at Seoul Regional Administrative Court. Samsung participated in the lawsuit as an aide of the accused.
Mar. 31, 2010 Ms. Ji-youn Park(23) died of leukemia.

Jun. 23, 2011 Seoul Regional Administrative Court admitted the late Ms. Yoo-mi Hwang’s and Sook-young Lee’s claims as industrial accidents. KWCWS objected to the court’s ruling and appealed.
Jul. 14, 2011 Paul Harper, the Principal of Environ Global, held a press conference and announced the investigation result “Samsung’s working environment is safe.” When asked about the project cost by a Wall Street correspondent, Principal Paul Harper said “The contract with Samsung is confidential.”

Mar. 21, 2012 Environ Global presented Samsung leukemia investigation result at ICOH. Samsung publicized the ‘presentation’ as ‘confirmation’ to domestic media.
Apr. 10, 2012 KWCWS granted the aplastic anemia of Ms. Ji-sook Kim(27) as an industrial accident.
May 7, 2012 Ms. Yoon-jung Lee(32), mother of two, died of brain tumor. 55th victim of Samsung leukemia.
Jul. 2012 4 experts including Prof. In-ah Kim published a paper that raised the possibility of association between leukemia and working environment at IJOEH.
Oct. 17, 2012 Samsung issued a press release of direct talk with Sharps just one day prior to national assembly’s inspection. Sharps retorted it as a media showoff.
Present Sharps’ estimation. Out of 151 Samsung leukemia incidents, 58 died (3 more since Ms. Yoon-jung Lee’s death). The second trial of industrial accident lawsuit by the late Ms. Yoo-mi Hwang and Sook-young Lee et al. is still going on. Production of a movie titled (temporary) <One more family> that will deal with Samsung leukemia incident is announced.


One comment

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