GIHEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) - A study commissioned by Samsung Electronics rejected assertions that employees may have been exposed to carcinogenic chemicals at its plants, as several cancer-stricken former employees of the world’s top memory chipmaker seek compensation for their illnesses.
Despite the findings, the South Korean firm said it would consider offering financial support for some of its former employees diagnosed with cancer, following allegations by civic groups and some former employees that its working environment caused leukemia.
Samsung says 26 of its employees who worked at its chip plants had been diagnosed with leukemia or lymphoma, and 10 of them had died of cancer. Civic groups say there are many more workers who have gotten ill due to hazardous working environment.
Samsung commissioned U.S. consulting firm Environ Corp last year to conduct an investigation following continued pressure, despite two previous studies by the government, which found no problems at Samsung’s plants.
Samsung is the world’s largest chipmaker after Intel Corp and earned $27.8 billion from chip sales last year. Its sprawling semiconductor factories in Giheung, where its chip business first started in early 1980s, employ more than 30,000 people.
The study focused on six cases involved in compensation claims and concluded there was no link between workplace exposure and diagnosed cancers.
“We did not find a link between exposure to cancer-causing chemicals and the health conditions of six employees,” Paul Harper, principal of the health sciences consulting firm, told reporters on Thursday.
Formaldehyde, ionizing radiation and trichloroethylene were the only chemicals and agents used or detected on Samsung’s lines that are known to be related to the cancers in question, Environ said.
None of the six cases were exposed to the carcinogens in sufficient quantities to be associated with increased risks of cancer, Environ said.
The old chip production lines where employees worked and later developed the illnesses were converted into chip test lines and light emitting diode production lines. The study was based on reconstructed exposures estimated by similar exposure groups.
The finding comes after a Seoul court last month ruled in favor of two former Samsung employees. In its ruling, the Seoul Administrative Court said although the precise cause of the workers’ illness wasn’t clear, it can be construed that their exposures to chemicals may have had some connection with their illness.
A total of nine cases are filed against the government-run Korea Workers Compensation & Welfare Service but not directly against Samsung.
The government fund said it appealed against the ruling on Thursday and Samsung said its review was not aimed at influencing the court case.
“It’s not part of our legal strategy but rather part of our attempt to fully access whether there are any problems in Samsung’s working environment,” a Samsung executive in legal department told reporters.
Civic groups and activists expressed skepticism about results of the study, which was reviewed by researchers from Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, University of Michigan and Yale University.
Samsung didn’t disclose the full report of the review, citing confidentiality agreement with its chemicals suppliers, and said it will consider releasing parts of the document after more review.
If the court case is finalized as industrial accident, it could deal a blow to the reputation of Samsung, which boasts a global high-tech manufacturer of flat screens, semiconductors and handsets.
Samsung reiterated on Thursday that chemicals used during the chip making process at its plants had not caused the cancers.
“Samsung has worked to transparently address questions about workplace health and safety...We believe this study...is consistent with previous studies that found no correlation between the workplace environment and employee illness,” Kwon Oh-hyun, head of Samsung’s chip business, told reporters.
The reputation of the electronics sector as a clean industry has been challenged in the past decade by cancer developments from those who worked at computer parts manufacturer.
In 2003, two former workers of International Business Machine sued the firm, claiming their exposure to chemicals in computer disk drive factory made them sick and ultimately gave them cancer.
Later the claim was cleared by a U.S. court, and IBM commissioned independent review, which concluded that its workplace conditions did not cause cancer or other fatal illnesses.
Editing by Lincoln Feast