Female workers handling chips at South Korean semiconductor plants face a 1.59 times higher risk of leukemia and a 2.8 times higher risk of dying from the disease than for all workers, according to the findings of the first research study on the issue by a state institution. In the case of the non-Hodgkin lymphoma form of blood cancer, the risk of death was found to be as much as 3.68 times higher. The result offered a conclusive confirmation of claims that have been made over the past decade or so by the semiconductor health and human rights watchdog group Banollim and others.
At the Government Complex Sejong on May 22, Kim Eun-a, director of the department of the occupational health research at the Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency (KOSHA), announced findings from an epidemiological study of the health of workers in semiconductor manufacturing. Based on a 10-year epidemiological study begun in 2009, the researchers concluded that female workers at semiconductor companies face a 1.55 times higher risk of developing leukemia, a form of blood cancer. For female operators aged 20 to 24 who handle semiconductor chips directly in factory clean rooms, the risk ratio was 2.74 times. For the study, the researchers examined 201,057 current and former workers at six semiconductor companies, including Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix.
Female operators were found to have a 2.81 times higher risk of dying from leukemia than other workers. The issue of leukemia at semiconductor factories first became known to the public with the 2007 death of Hwang Yu-mi, a former operator at a Samsung Electronics plant in Giheung, from acute myeloid leukemia. In the case of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the risk ratio among female workers was 2.19 times higher for operators at semiconductor factories, while the risk of dying from the disease was 3.68 times higher for all female workers at semiconductor companies. The rate was 2.52 times higher than for the general population.
Noting “increase risk ratios for thyroid cancer, stomach cancer, breast cancer, brain and central nervous system cancer, and renal cancer,” the researchers concluded the cases of thyroid cancer and of stomach cancer and breast cancer among women “require additional examination,” citing the possibility that more semiconductor company employees may have learned about their conditions due to increased workplace health examinations.
In December 2008, KOSHA released findings from a yearlong study tracking cases of blood cancer at semiconductor processing plants following Hwang Yu-mi’s application for industrial accident recognition in 2007. At the time, the study was widely criticized for its short duration – which was seen as inadequate to produce significant findings in connection with leukemia – and for ignoring the “healthy worker effect.” The claim was that because workers as a group tend to be healthier than the general public, as they receive ongoing health examinations at the time of hiring and while employed, their risk ratios should be compared with other workers rather than the total population. In her announcement on May 22, Kim presented two sets of figures comparing the risks of cancer and other conditions among semiconductor workers with both the total population and all workers.
The study’s findings are expected to make it easier for workers to gain industrial accident recognition for different forms of blood cancer developed while employed at semiconductor workplaces. The door to industrial accident recognition has been opened wider for semiconductors with the Ministry of Employment and Labor’s adoption last year of the so-called “principle of presumption,” which simplifies the approval process for individuals working on the same or similar processes to cases where industrial accidents have already been recognized for eight types of diseases, including leukemia and malignant lymphoma.
In-house subcontractor workers omitted from latest study
Some observers are claiming the latest study is also limited. In a statement the same day, Banollim criticized the exclusion of in-house subcontractor employees working at the semiconductor factories of large corporations, along with the failure to identify causes for various cancers and other diseases due to an inadequate investigation of the working environments and chemicals at semiconductor plants.
“In the cases of stomach, breast, and thyroid cancer, they need to examine whether the increases [in reports] are the result of nighttime shift work or the effects of radiation exposure [at factories] rather than simply being due to more opportunities for health checks,” the group said.
In a telephone interview with the Hankyoreh, Hwang Sang-gi Banollim president and father of Hwang Yu-mi, said, “When our Yu-mi applied for industrial accident recognition in 2007, Samsung insisted [her leukemia] was an isolated case, and the government just parroted that position, so they didn’t end up taking responsibility.”
“Now it has been proven that what we said 10 years ago is 100% correct,” he said.
By Jeon Jong-hwi, staff reporter
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