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Report prompts call for Samsung to disclose workplace chemical use

A South Korean NGO has said that following the release of an independent investigation committee report, Samsung Electronics must disclose more workplace chemical information to employees and ensure long-term studies are carried out to assess workplace ill-health.

The committee presented the findings of its two year investigation in May. It was formed in 2016, after an agreement between Samsung and worker groups to look into claims of ill health, including leukaemia and brain tumours, at the company’s microchip fabrication plants.

The report found:

  • no clear evidence of a link between illness and workplace chemical use;

  • further study is required to establish this; and

  • workers should have more information on the chemicals they use.

However, Dr Jeong-ok Kong, speaking for the NGO Supporters for Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor Industry (Sharps), told Chemical Watch that media comment on the report has missed the point by focusing on the lack of evidence of a link.

The finding that there was no clear evidence linking illness with workplace conditions, including exposure to harmful chemicals at the company, was entirely expected and "not news", she said.

Dr Jeong-ok, a specialist in occupational and environmental diseases, said the key point was the committee's recommendation for ongoing studies. Defining a cause or finding a link to occupational disease is notoriously difficult, requires both "both retrospective and prospective cohort studies" and can take decades. "They simply did not have enough information," she said.

Defining a cause or finding a link to occupational disease is notoriously difficult ... and can take decades, Dr Jeong-ok, Sharps

The committee’s proposal that workers are given more information on workplace chemicals should also be followed up. According to the report, workers lack information on 50% of the substances they use, she said.

Ms So-eui Rhee, a spokeswoman for Samsung Electronics, told Chemical Watch that the company is looking at the findings. "Samsung is conducting a thorough review of recommendations made by the committee recently and will make the best efforts to implement improvements," she said.

Workplace environment monitoring reports

Dr Jeong-ok also highlighted the difficulty former employees have had in claiming compensation. She says this is because Samsung have withheld details from historic environmental monitoring reports on the grounds that they might lead to disclosure of technology secrets.

South Korea is following the US and Europe, she said, where compensation claims for workplace health are increasingly based on probability rather than proof because of the difficulty in establishing the latter.

Dr Jeong-ok said applications to the Korea Workers’ Compensation and Welfare Service (Comwel) have effectively been blocked because "crucial elements" of evidence are missing from Samsung’s heavily redacted reports.

A district court is currently assessing the company claims that the monitoring reports might expose business secrets in an appeal by Samsung against unredacted publication.

The company has submitted the findings of a Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy (Motie) expert panel that the reports might make it possible to guess "national core technologies". The publication of the reports has been suspended pending the court’s decision.

Meanwhile, a 23 May meeting of MPs with academics and civic groups at the National Assembly questioned these claims. Many attendees argued that no CBI could be gleaned from monitoring reports as there was no way to link particular substances with one of the hundreds of processes in semiconductor manufacturing.

Samsung's Ms Rhee responded that this view was "believed to have come from a workplace hygiene expert, not a semiconductor expert". In this industry, the "finest details" of the cutting-edge technologies used "determine" competitiveness, she said.

She said the company is "committed to providing necessary information to assist applicants of compensation claims over illness if safeguards to protect confidential information are in place".

Key topic: OSHA

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