Companies using highly toxic chemicals to etch silicon chips for computers are under fire for failing to protect the health of their workers. HSE inspectors uncovered “weaknesses”, “misunderstandings” and poor practices in vital safety procedures.
Seven legal enforcement notices have been served on four companies in the past few months for breaching health and safety rules. One Scottish company, Intense Photonics, was rapped three times for failing to control hazards at its former plant in Blantyre, South Lanarkshire, including risks from arsenic dust.
HSE inspectors last year visited 17 companies in the UK involved in making semiconductors for the computer industry. Five were in Scotland’s ‘silicon glen’: National Semiconductor in Greenock, Semefab and Raytheon Systems in Glenrothes, Shin-Etsu Handotai in Livingston and Intense Photonics.
The HSE was checking to see what had changed since it last had a serious look at the microelectronics industry in 2002. Although it found some improvements, a string of remaining safety shortfalls are highlighted in its report, released online last week.
Monitoring to ensure compliance with safety rules in high hazard situations “was weak at several sites”, the report said. “Often, there was no consideration of risks to others arising from maintenance and cleaning, for example from spread of contamination.”
Occupational health services for workers had not improved and were “often poorly targeted”, the report added. “Few companies had satisfactory auditing and review arrangements for their management system for hazardous substances.”
The report pointed out that safety procedures at silicon chip plants are important because of the dangerous materials involved. There are “toxic gases, strong acids and solvents”, it said, some of which - like arsenic and its compounds - can cause cancer.
In a few cases companies had been “slow” to investigate abnormal results from monitoring workers, the report said. And in “several” cases, gauges had been tampered with to prevent safety alarms from shutting down operations.
Professor Andrew Watterson, an occupational health expert from the University of Stirling, criticised the industry for failing to achieve basic health standards. “Since the early 2000s there has been little or no significant improvement on occupational health service provision,” he said.
“With increasing evidence of the health damage done by low level multi-chemical exposures , it is of real concern that the industry still breaches controls on well known cancer-causing substances.”
One of the three improvement notices served on Intense Photonics last August was to prevent the spread of contamination from gallium arsenide dust. The other two required an assessment of risks from hazardous materials and measures to control noise pollution.
The company’s chairman, Scott Christie, told the Sunday Herald that “two or three minor modifications” had been made to the Blantyre plant as a result, costing less than £5,000. “It wasn’t a big issue,” he said, pointing out that the company had sold the plant to the CTS Corporation in January this year.
The HSE stressed that it followed its regulatory policy when visiting semiconductor sites. “Enforcement notices were issued when it was appropriate to do so, and these have been followed up to ensure the required improvements have been achieved,” said an HSE spokesman.
“Other recommendations were made to organisations with the aim of securing further improvements to their existing arrangements.”
The watchdog, however, came under fire from campaigners for not being tough enough on offending companies. “If they had properly regulated the industry this report would not have been necessary,” said Jim McCourt, a spokesman for former workers from the National Semiconductor plant in Greenock (see below).
“It is our view that HSE is now handing responsibility back to an industry that has no intention of improving things. The only prospect of any real improvement will be if there is a genuine intent from HSE to ensure those who do not comply are prosecuted.”
Cancer fears at Greenock plant
More than a decade ago, Grace Morrison launched a campaign to try and pin blame on the National Semiconductor plant in Greenock for giving her, her sister and many other women cancer. She led the campaign group, Phase Two, which involved more than 70 women who worked at the plant.
She recovered, but her sister unfortunately died after struggling for two years against leukaemia. “It was a dreadful time,” she said. “The manufacture of semiconductors is a dirty, dangerous business.”
The campaign succeeded in forcing the government’s watchdog, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), to launch an investigation. In 2001 it found high rates of lung and stomach cancer amongst women who worked for National Semiconductor, but concluded that there was no firm proof that the disease was linked to their employment.
The HSE then embarked on a further study into cancer rates, which has taken nine years to complete. According to the HSE, a report is now due to be published next month on 24 August.
Phase Two is angry that the draft report will be shown to National Semiconductor up to two weeks before it is published, but not to the workers involved. This could give the company a chance to leak the results, and try and put a positive spin on them, campaigners fear.
But HSE argues that this is part of an agreed procedure to allow the company to make comments on “factual accuracy”. National Semiconductor has always denied that its operations caused cancer.
“Safety is our number one priority,” said a company spokesman. “We are committed to maintaining a standard that ensures continual improvement in environmental, health and safety performance.”
Campaigners from Phase Two, however, remain sceptical. They doubt both the company’s reassurances and the HSE’s investigations, and are worried that next month’s report will again be inconclusive.
Read earlier articles about health and safety in the microelectronics industry here and here.