Hesperian Health Guides

Making and cleaning the wafer

In this chapter:

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.

First aid for hydrofluoric acid (HF) burns

HF burns often do not cause immediate pain, but burn deeper than other chemicals. Inhaling HF causes burns inside the body and can kill.

  1. Immediately remove any contaminated clothing or gloves and rinse the skin with a lot of water for 5 minutes.
  2. If you have calcium gluconate gel, put it on the skin. Do this even if you cannot see or feel a burn.
  3. If you do not have calcium gluconate, rinse the area for 15 minutes or more, until a health worker can help you. You can also use an icepack to slow the burn. See First Aid when a chemical touches your skin or eyes.
  4. In the clinic, they will soak and cover the area with calcium gluconate. If the burn is severe, the doctor might inject calcium gluconate directly into the burn.

What should be available in your factory

All workstations where people work with HF must have emergency showers and calcium gluconate in case of emergencies. For more on treating burns, see First aid for burns. For more on HF, see Acids.

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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.

Breathing chemicals can cause health problems

Chemicals in the air can irritate your nose, throat, and lungs and cause breathing problems, making it harder for your body to get the air it needs. Your chest might feel tight, as if you cannot take in enough air or full breaths. Many people also get a cough that does not go away or one that only goes away when they are not working.

If you have any of these signs, especially if you have been breathing chemical vapors, see a health worker. She might do an X-ray or lung function test to check how well your lungs work, and test your blood to see how much oxygen is in it. Treatment varies for breathing problems: breathing oxygen from a tank or taking cortico-steroids or other medicines may reduce breathing problems. Staying away from chemicals and not smoking cigarettes always helps. Antibiotics do not.

Although widely used, sometimes cortico-steroids are used in harmful ways. See Where There Is No Doctor and Where Women Have No Doctor for more information.

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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.

A person is holding another person from the shoulders.

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.

This page was updated:25 Sep 2023