Expert says no fresh air provided in IBM cleanrooms



SANTA CLARA, Calif.—Robert Morris likened the IBM Corp. cleanrooms where James Moore and Alida Hernandez worked to an unfiltered and untreated swimming pool where as many who had swam had urinated.

Day in and day out, according to the cleanroom ventilation expert, they worked in the fabs, where vapors from such chemicals as acetone were never flushed. Instead, the noxious gases swirled about in return air that was drawn from unclassified areas that were never replenished with fresh air from outside.

Morris, a key witness for the plaintiffs in the ongoing trial against Big Blue, said in an interview with CleanRooms, "They put no outside air in those cleanrooms. It was all return air."

"If there are odors in the space, that's one thing, but if there are smells all over the place, the ventilaton system is not working." ???Robert Morris
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His six-days-worth of testimony in mid-December was indeed a setback for IBM. Morris testified and helped create virtual reality models of cleanrooms to simulate airflow and working conditions at the plants in and around the 1970s, a time Moore and Hernandez allege they developed cancer after being exposed to toxic chemicals at the computer company's San Jose plant.

IBM's attorneys asked Judge Robert Baines to strike Morris' testimony from the record. They also asked the judge to bar the testimony of Scott Reynolds, an expert in computational fluid dynamics.

IBM's attorneys subsequently established that Morris, president and chief executive officer of Flow Safe Inc., a Denville, N.J.-based manufacturer of airflow and control systems, did not review key historical plans and drawings of the facility before testifying. Instead, they contend, he based his opinion on other IBM documents, Hernandez's and Moore's memories, and industry practices.

"The testimony given by Morris was a mishmash of guesses, speculation and incompetence," IBM attorney Robert Weber told The San Jose Mercury News. "Reynolds relies on it in his modeling and there is no way the modeling should go in [the court record.]"

Positively negative

In his interview with CleanRooms, Morris indicated the drawings IBM provided were poor at best. "IBM provided drawings of the room, and when we got the drawings and compared them to their memories, it was chilling," he adds. "[Hernandez's] recollection of the space was remarkable."

The air flowing through IBM's cleanrooms, Morris contends, was far from clean, and throughout the case, there has been testimony from workers who complained of odors and headaches.

"If there are odors in the space, that's one thing, but if there are smells all over the place, the ventilation system is not working," he adds. "There's a saying in this industry, and that is 'the solution is dilution,' and the only way to dilute that kind of build-up is with fresh air that is not contaminated."

IBM's cleanrooms, Morris explains, were positively pressurized, but because fresh air was not introduced, the building itself—the areas around the cleanrooms—became negatively pressurized. That caused chemical vapors to leak into other parts of the building and increased the pressure in the positively pressured cleanrooms, he says.

"Once you exhaust air and you do not bring in fresh air equal or greater to what you exhausted, the building becomes negatively pressurized," he explains. "That's when all the bad things happen. There are backflows of sewer gases and chimney fumes, you have fumes absorbed from other buildings. When it rains, the building absorbs water in the cracks and crevices, so the insulation becomes damp and grows bacteria. When the bacteria grows, you get the odor, and when it dries you get spores and you get sick."

On paper, the airflow pattern worked and was ideal, for it required smaller air-handling units, air conditioners and coils—and that meant big energy savings. At the same time, workers were not protected from chemical vapors. The cleanrooms in question, Morris says, were supposed to be Class 100 laminar rooms, but were like Class 1,000 to Class 10,000. "What they said they planned to do, they never did, because the structure did not allow for more filters in the ceiling," he adds.

Even the fume hoods were operating at the wrong air changes, he says. Morris claims that IBM supplied 1,500 cubic feet of air per minute (CFM) to the HEPA filter inside the laminar bench, but they only exhausted 700 CFM through the workbench. "The other 800 CFM was blown into the workers' breathing zone. It's supposed to be 1,500 supply and 1,500 exhaust, but again, they were saving energy cost," he adds. "If it wasn't inhaled, it was returned to the space."

He also cites the handbook of the American Conference of Government Industrial Hygienists, which indicates that exhausting or non-exhausting hoods, whether they are laminar or horizontal flow, should not be used for worker protection. Morris also noted that Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) regulations indicate that the employer is obligated to rid areas of odors if employees complain. "But it was never done," he adds.

Morris believes that IBM did not intentionally make cleanrooms hazardous to its employees, but says he is convinced the pending lawsuits the computer company is embroiled in, as well as all the pain and suffering employees are going through, never had to happen.

"You had people who were disconnected—the industrial hygienist, the maintenance people, and the engineer who made the design," he adds. "It all appeared to be working, but if they would have thought what they were doing, and worked together, they could have built these cleanrooms the right way and for less money. But they were doing they're own thing, with each blaming the other for the problems."