IBM is fighting lawsuits by scores of former workers who allege they weren't adequately protected in the sterile “clean rooms” where computer chips are made. “Big Blue” defends its safety record and says other problems caused the workers' illnesses. But, other chipmakers worry the lawsuits could spawn a flood of additional suits.
Alida Hernandez and James Moore, who worked at IBM in San Jose, Calif., in the 1970s and '80s and were diagnosed with cancer in the '90s, sued IBM in California Superior Court, alleging that workplace chemicals caused their illnesses. In California, workplace injury claims generally are handled through workers' compensation. To win damages outside the workers' comp scheme, plaintiffs' attorneys had to prove that IBM fraudulently withheld information about the dangers posed by the chemicals.
Earlier this year, a Superior Court jury sided with IBM. “The law in California is very restrictive,” says Amanda Hawes, whose law firm helped represent the plaintiffs. But IBM's victory could be short-lived. Some 250 workers have sued the company in New York and California, some alleging chemical exposure caused birth defects in offspring.
Two of the suits have been settled out of court. “They wouldn't be settling if they could prove they weren't causing birth defects,” says Joseph LaDou, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and an expert on cancer in the semiconductor field. “It's not tough to show that the workers were exposed to carcinogens.”
In fact, in March the judge in the California case suspended 44 pending suits against IBM and ordered both sides to settle.
Meanwhile, a class-action lawsuit filed five years ago by employees of Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaker National Semiconductor remains pending. Although automation in semiconductor manufacturing has reduced the number of employees who enter clean rooms, observers say problems remain industrywide.
“It's the most secretive industry anyone's ever dealt with,” LaDou says. “They present themselves as the clean industry, not traditionally polluting, as the heavy industries of the past.”
Actually, he says, computer manufacturing is a “chemically intensive” industry, and although clean-room workers wear protective gear, it is really designed to protect the computer chips from impurities — not to protect the workers from the chemicals.
In fact, concerns about safety in computer manufacturing prompted the formation of a grass-roots organization, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), in 1982.
But Martin Sepulveda, vice president of global well-being services and health benefits at IBM, said the company takes the materials it uses very seriously. “We're maniacal about it,” he said, adding that IBM restricts chemical exposure to one-fourth of legal limits, carefully trains employees who work with hazardous chemicals and regularly monitors their health.
“OSHA standards are not protective,” responds Hawes, who thinks that more should be done to safeguard computer workers. While OSHA has standards for individual chemicals, it lacks standards for the chemical mixtures that clean-room workers encounter, she explains. In addition, environmental laws restrict exposure to these chemicals to a few parts per billion, whereas OSHA and IBM limit contact to parts per million, she says.
LaDou says OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have brushed off his requests for stricter standards. “It's just standard operating procedure in Washington that this industry is being treated with favor,” he says of technology giants, which wield considerable political and economic clout.
LaDou insists that workplace cancer should be a high priority for the government because dozens of studies show that between 5 percent and 25 percent of U.S. cancer cases are rooted in the workplace. According to NIOSH, roughly 20,000 people die each year from cancer attributable to the workplace, and about 40,000 workers develop cancer each year from workplace environmental factors.
IBM has conducted three cancer studies in the past 15 years. In the mid-1990s, one linked chemicals used at two IBM semiconductor plants to higher miscarriage rates among female workers, prompting the company to stop using them. But a second study concluded that workers in IBM's electronic manufacturing did not have higher rates of brain tumors. A third study, to be released this year, is examining a possible link between cancer and employment at three of the IBM facilities that prompted lawsuits.
In 2002, an independent panel commissioned by the Semiconductor Industry Association found “no affirmative evidence of increased risk of cancer among U.S. semiconductor factory workers.” But insufficient data prevented it from drawing any conclusions. At the time, the SVTC said the panel's actions fell short.
“We expect much more from the state-of-art, high-tech electronics industry,” Ted Smith, coalition executive director, said. “What we have here is a state-of-the art stall job.”
Now LaDou fears the companies are shifting their computer manufacturing to countries that keep few, if any, records on workplace cancer. Computer companies say they've moved manufacturing offshore to cut costs and remain competitive, and that the resultant lower prices for their products will benefit Americans.