Hesperian Health Guides
Making and cleaning the wafer
The chips that are the hearts and brains of electronics are made from slices of silicon called wafers.
Wafers are made by melting and spinning silicon into tubes called "ingots." Workers cut ingots into wafer-thin slices and then clean them with chemicals.
The chemicals used to clean wafers include solvents and acids. These chemicals can irritate and burn your skin. Absorbed directly through the skin or from regular exposure by breathing, they can harm your internal organs. One of the most dangerous chemicals used to make and clean wafers is hydrofluoric acid (see box below).
If your skin is splashed with a chemical:
- immediately rinse the area with ﬂowing water for 15 minutes or more.
- remove any protective equipment or clothing that was splashed so more chemicals will not drip onto you.
See First aid when a chemical touches your skin or eyes. Do not go back to work before getting new and clean personal protective equipment.
Prevent chemicals from getting in your nose and mouth
Electronics factories use so many chemicals they need to have well developed and well maintained ventilation systems to clean the air or bring fresh air into your work area. See more about Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems.
Even when air is filtered and refreshed with clean air, you might still have health problems from chemicals in the air. Pay attention to signs you might be breathing chemicals:
- You see or smell a chemical. But many chemicals do not smell or you might be used to them.
- You have problems breathing, skin or eye irritation, feel dizzy, confused, or nauseous.
- You have health problems that might be caused by the chemicals you are working with.
If you breathe in chemicals, leave the workplace immediately and get fresh air. Seek medical attention. See First aid when you breathe in a chemical.
Your factory should also have an emergency plan for chemical releases, including where to find and how to use emergency PPE. If your factory does not have an emergency plan or has not trained you on what to do, leave an area where there has been a spill as fast as you can.
Cleaning wafers gave Yu-mi the cancer that killed her
When workers get sick from exposure to chemicals at work, they often have to fight for their illnesses to be recognized as work-related.
That’s what happened to my beautiful daughter. Yu-mi was only 21 when she got leukemia, cancer of the blood. She worked cleaning wafers at a Samsung semiconductor plant in Korea. Soon after Yumi was diagnosed, so was another woman in the same work area. Samsung offered to pay their medical expenses but said their illnesses had nothing to do with work. They said it was a personal problem. Yu-mi fought the leukemia for many months, but the disease was too advanced. She passed away in 2007.
Yu-mi got leukemia from working at Samsung. Her plant used chemicals that cause leukemia. Other families of Samsung workers also lost their children to cancer from working there. We decided to fight to make Samsung take responsibility, and stop poisoning workers and destroying families.
SHARPS (Supporters for the Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor Industry) brought together Samsung workers, former workers and their families, unions, and human rights groups. We held rallies, protests, and campaigns. We met with groups from all over the world that fought the electronics companies poisoning the workers. Academics and scientists began studies to find out which chemicals were making workers sick. We went to court many times, asking the Korean government to recognize workers’ cancers as work-related. But Samsung is very influential in Korea, and the courts kept ruling that workers’ cancers did not come from work.
In 2011, a Korean court ruled in our favor. Since many of the chemicals and byproducts were known to cause cancer, they said it was likely that Yu-mi got cancer at Samsung. Samsung immediately hired a consulting firm called Environ to "prove" Samsung workers had no more cancer than any other group in Korea. They got the court to change its ruling. But we appealed again. Finally in 2014, it was decided that Yumi’s leukemia was caused by her work at Samsung.
The ruling was a big win for us. It showed that people standing firm can challenge the most powerful electronics company in the world. We will continue to fight for the Samsung workers, and for the memory of my daughter Yu-mi.