Jousting for position


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Both sides in the cleanroom health and safety issue are digging in, and with convincing arguments.


Controversy concerning the adequacy of environmental health and safety (EH&S) measures applied to cleanrooms in the semiconductor industry is expected to continue despite the outcome of the recent case tried in Santa Clara, Calif., County Superior Court and a New York lawsuit settlement.

The Santa Clara high-profile trial focused on claims that two former IBM employees developed cancer as a result of being exposed to chemicals at an IBM disc drive factory. But in late February, the jury found for the defendant. Less than one week later, IBM settled for $129 million in a lawsuit brought by a former worker who had blamed her daughter's birth defects on exposure to chemicals at an IBM plant in New York state.

Key issues in the cleanroom controversy focus on the need for the industry to immediately conduct epidemiological studies and on the efficacy of equipment (exhaust hoods) used to remove harmful vapors. It's a venue that extends across the entire semiconductor industry. Critics say studies are coming too late with too many excuses, while the industry claims they are getting to the bottom of the issue in a responsible manner.

A call for action

Critics of the semiconductor industry call for rapid implementation of several measures, including:

  • Regular epidemiological studies at facilities worldwide to establish baseline data on chronic disease and birth defect patterns;
  • Industrial hygiene monitoring;
  • Toxicological research;
  • Developing safe chemical alternatives; and
  • Addressing the ill health of industry workers [See "Stuck in the EH&S Spotlight," CleanRooms, December 2003, p. 14].

According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 66,600 people worked in semiconductor production in the United States in 1972. That number jumped to 103,200 by 1987 and 121,700 in 2002. Because a decade or more may pass between a worker's exposure to carcinogenic chemicals and the onset of cancer, critics say studies should focus on individuals who worked in the industry between the 1960s and 1990s. Most critics believe that initial findings, combined with the hundreds of pending lawsuits, are sufficient evidence that immediate action is imperative.

In response to the call for epidemiological studies, the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA; San Jose, Calif.) has agreed to move forward with a study, two years after it commissioned Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health to determine the feasibility of a retrospective epidemiological study of cleanroom workers. (See "SIA moves ahead," page 1.)

Many critics, however, say it has taken too long. Before the SIA announced its study plans, Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC, San Jose), expressed concern that he saw "no commitment by the SIA to conduct credible long-term health studies that are transparent and which include an objective methodology for assuring fair and accurate results." Smith said the slow progress indicated "a continuing pattern to obfuscate and prevent a serious and independent evaluation of the severe health problems within the industry."

Other critics, such as engineer Robert Morris, believe that the answer has long been evident. Morris, a partner of the office of Henry Klumb Configuration Management Consultants, is a member of the National Society for Professional Engineers, the Instrument Society of America, and the American Society of Heating Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning. "As far as I'm concerned, the industry has known for 20 years that there is a problem," Morris tells CleanRooms. "The studies are coming too late. This is because devices employed to remove contaminants from the cleanrooms (the hoods) do not protect the workers."

Morris adds, "The real question is how much damage has been done. If we do the epidemiological study, we may find the answer, and then the industry can clean up its act by replacing the devices."

Noting that different standards apply to the equipment used in chemical development laboratories and the equipment employed in production facilities, Morris says: "Generally, hoods used in chemical development laboratories are far superior to those used in production facilities. This should not be the case." Morris strongly believes that the same strict standards should be applied to production facilities.

An update on the epidemiological study comes from the SIA. "Our 'Occupational Health and Safety' backgrounder on our website,, presents the latest information," says spokesperson Molly Tuttle. "People must understand that this study has been a work in process since the RFP was issued about a year ago."

Industry claims progress

Commenting on charges of delay, Tuttle says, "Cancer is a very serious issue, but science must back allegations. SIA is going through the process in a responsible manner. There is not a whole lot of scientific information out there, and it is the opinion of our Scientific Advisory Committee that proceeding without such evidence is not the way to go. Our objective is to get at the bottom of the issue and move forward."

She noted that communication is part of the process, which is why SIA uses its website to post updates. "We have also hosted meetings at SIA headquarters to exchange ideas with interested parties," Tuttle says.

Meanwhile, IBM has commissioned the University of Alabama at Birmingham to undertake a parallel independent epidemiology study of its own workplaces. "Although funded by IBM, the company has no representation on the UAB study team," explains company spokesperson Chris Andrews. "The SIA study is more industry wide; we want a report focused 100 percent on our own facilities."

Andrews says that the study, commissioned in 2002, is consistent with IBM's culture "to look after employees' safety and health, and to provide a broader base of knowledge." He said that IBM expects an initial report during the first half of the year. "When the report is received, it will go through internal review, then to discussions on the findings," Andrews adds.

But Smith of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition is less enthusiastic.

"I understand that IBM is working with UAB," he says. "In my opinion, this institution is not a serious and reputable source for epidemiological work."

Some maintain cleanrooms are safe.

William Acorn, principal and founder of Tucson-based Acorn Consulting Services LLC, is a registered professional mechanical engineer in several states and is registered with the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying. Author of Code Compliance for Advanced Technology Facilities, Acorn regularly delivers seminars and workshops to facility owners (the manufacturers), engineers, architects, contractors, and representatives of the regulatory community.

"I am not an expert on the subject of the epidemiological studies that are going on at this time," Acorn tells CleanRooms. "I am intimately involved, however, in the design and construction of semiconductor and related manufacturing facilities from the standpoint of life safety."

Acorn says he has been involved in this endeavor for more than 20 years, and has been in a position to see the facilities of numerous manufacturers in a wide range of jurisdictions. "I can tell you that these are the most highly regulated facilities in the U.S. and that U.S. facilities are the most highly regulated in the world," Acorn adds. "The building, fire, and mechanical codes that regulate these facilities are aimed at protecting the lives and health and welfare of the occupants, as well as protecting the properties."

Anxiously awaiting answers

Both sides of the cleanroom controversy present strong arguments for their positions. As noted by SVTC's Smith, "These are important issues, highly charged and political." While accuracy is crucial, workers' health is of paramount concern, and accurate findings must be accomplished with as much speed and efficiency as possible.

History indicates that when compelling evidence surfaces, the industry takes corrective steps, as with voluntarily phasing out ethylene-based ethers from photolithography. With the due date for SIA's Johns Hopkins study approaching, both sides anxiously await a quick evaluation and sharing of the information it contains.

BETSY ZIOBRON is a freelance technical writer covering a variety of high-tech industries.