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According to California labor statistics, “Poisonings are twice as common among semiconductor workers as they are among employees in other industries … and work-related illnesses occur three-and-one­-half times more frequently in the semi-conductor industry than in manufacturing as a whole.” Following are some high-tech problems:

Respiratory Disease: 22% of all floor workers in one electronics factory developed occupational asthma. 46% of the women workers had a work-related wheeze, shortness of breath, and other respiratory problems. Researchers traced the illnesses to liquid solder flux, used to clean boards during soldering;

Chemical Sensitization: Exposure to toxic chemicals may damage the body’s immune system by destroying “T-cells” which suppress reactions to chemicals. “When the body loses its suppressor cells, or brakes, it starts making anti-bodies against almost everything … In electronics factories, the body first reacts against a particular chemical, such as xylene, then to a group of chemicals, then to substances such as detergents and exhaust fumes, and even to the body’s own hormones” according to immunologist Alan Levin;

Hypertension: Six out of 54 tested women electronics workers, all under the age of 34, suffered from extreme hypertension possibly resulting from stress caused by overly demanding assembly quotas, incessant monitoring, and production “speed-ups” at work;

Radiation Hazards: According to an unpublished report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), high-tech etching equipment can produce above-standard exposure to radio frequency radiation (RF). The report also noted “The seriousness of RF radiation as a workplace hazard results in part from the fact that workers are insensible to exposure because RF energy penetrates the body without activating the heat sensors located in the skin. The lack of warning properties gives workers a false sense of security.”

Reproductive Problems: Solder fumes can increase the risk of spontaneous abortion. And many of the solvents used in high-tech plants can cause damage to the reproductive system. In 1980 and 1981, an underground leak of the toxic solvent TCA from Fairchild storage tanks contaminated a public well serving South San Jose (CA) homes. Women in nearby neighborhoods suffered a higher than normal number of miscarriages and birth defects, according to a recent state report.

Cancer: Cyanide and arsenic compounds and other carcinogenic substances are used in the electronic industry. Many high-tech workers exposed to these compounds subsequently develop cancer. Dr. Deborah Winn of the National Cancer Institute found an abnormal incidence of oral cancer in electronics workers in North Carolina.

High-tech workers are on the frontier of a new and booming industry in need of stringent federal regulation. However, since 1980, cutbacks in OSHA funding and reductions in inspections have made matters worse. The Reagan administration has called for a “voluntary compliance” program that could exempt thousands of plants from surprise inspections.


THE PROGRESSIVE, October 1985, “Dead End in Silicon Valley,” by Diana Hembree, pp 18-24; MS. MAGAZINE, March 1986, “A New American Nightmare?”, by Amanda Spake, pp 35-42+