Where's the Dirt? Chemicals Run Amok in the "Clean Room"

expose by dennis hayes

Submitted by ludd on March 1, 2010

In cramped change rooms, they enjoy their last casual chatter before the crescendo. They snap on vinyl surgeon's gloves and don white and pale-blue dacron: hoods, jump suits, veils, and booties. As they shroud themselves in nearly identical bunny suits, the workers, or rather the images they present to one another, shed their distinctness.

They walk through a narrow vestibule with a grey sticky mat on the floor. Abruptly, the crescendo begins its deafening ascent; they barely hear the stripping sound of the mat cleansing their soles. Along the vestibule walls, crooked plastic tentacle stumps fire a continuous fusillade of air at them, removing dust flecks and lint from the dacron. The roar submerges normal conversational tones—all but shouts and sharp sounds.

Passing through the vestibule to the clean room or aisle, the workers take up positions to new tones at different pitches: the dissonant arpeggio of rapidly moving air and loudly humming machines. From the ceiling to the floor, the forced air of the laminar flow blows dust particles larger than quarter-widths of human hair. This protects the even smaller circuitry that blots the wafers. But the air flow merges acoustically with the dull whir of the processing equipment. The consequence of this merger is a cacophonous, low boom—a crescendo that peaks but never falls off.

Above the crescendo, casual conversation is difficult and the distraction often dangerous. Their mouths gagged and faces veiled (often above the nose), phrases are muffled, expressions half-hidden. The customary thoroughfares of meaning and emotion are obscured. Do furrowed eyebrows indicate pleasure or problem? Like deep-sea divers, the workers use hand-gestures, or like oil riggers, they shout above the din created by the refrigerator-sized machines and the hushed roar of the laminar flow. But mainly, the crescendo encourages a feeling of isolation, of removal from the world.

In any honest estimation, electronics production work must be counted among the most dangerous of occupations, though this statement might clash with the daily perceptions of workers and certainly with that of managers. By the late '70s, the occupational illness rate for semiconductor workers was over three times that of manufacturing workers; all electronics workers experienced job-related illnesses at twice the general manufacturing rate. Yet workers now are denied even these abstract reckonings of the dangers they face, thanks to a sleazy numbers-running operation by the semiconductor industry, and much winking by public officials.

By the early '80s, the industry simply changed the way it recorded injuries and illnesses. The result was a 2/3's drop in the occupational illness rate. To this day, a rigged data collection system projects a safe picture of the clean room. At all levels, government agencies have supported this fiction by failing to investigate and refusing to enforce; not a single study of electronics workers' health has been completed All of this feeds a milieu of ignorance about clean room work that multiplies the dangers workers face.

Difficult to detect, camouflaged by indistinct and time-released symptoms that afflict workers unevenly, the hazards of clean-room acids and gases are dismissed by most workers. Vigilance is uncommon (as if the decision to live and work near the San Andreas Fault, which promises one day to violently sever and collapse much of Silicon Valley, impairs sensitivity to danger.) A psychology of nonchalance emerges, encouraged by jammed production schedules. supported by a distracting focus o? chip yield, and reinforced by the energy-sapping inertia of workplace ritual in a surreal environment. The cues that should alert one to danger instead bolster nonchalance.

Gowning up in outfits that outwardly resemble protective clothing provides the vague sense that we are preparing ourselves for another environment, much like putting on boots, coat, and hat for a winter outing. But the bunny suits provide no protection from the chemicals; rather they protect the clean room from us—the invisible particles our bodies throw off with every slight movement. Yet more than once have I heard workers (and in one case, a manager) speak of the bunny suit as if it guarded against danger.

The laminar flow of particle-cleansing air also imparts a false sense of safety. Laminar flow and particle filters are not designed to extract dangerous fumes, traces of which can circulate undetected for hours, especially in older fabrication areas. In some clean rooms, the forced air can "kick up" toxic fumes, spreading them outward and upward toward noses and eyes. Still, the sound and feel of flowing air lends a deceptive "cleanliness" to the ambiance. The ambiance is misleading in a distinctly modern way.

In deference to the fragile wafers—rather than to the dangers that loom every-where—the workers move in eerily cadenced motion that resembles the tentative movement of astronauts slightly free of Sudden movements raise eye-brows and suggest accidents. This restrained, unspontaneous motion is the preferred body language. It is a language not everyone can speak, and one which managers bear in mind when screening job applicants. They select women, disproportionately recent immigrants from Central America, the Pacific Rim, and Asia, for the most tedious clean room jobs.

"Men as a group do not do as well" at the lonely, detailed, and monotonous tasks, a male clean room manager confides. "I'm not talking about [women's] little fingers being more agile [than men's]. That's bullshit. But just the way our society trains women and the [lack of?] opportunities that they have, cause them to be more inwardly directed." The same manager applauds the suitability of maternal instincts to clean room work. "A lot of the dealing with children gets transferred to dealing with wafers: [the wafers become] 'my babies, be careful."' Perhaps these observations are less real than rationalization for management's primary attractions to women (low pay) and recent immigrants (gullibility). But a semblance of truth clings to this rationalization.

The Latin and Asian countries from which so many clean room women hail are experiencing rapid, if uneven, modernization. The comparison to middle-class American culture—the culture of permanent modernization—is not always a stark one. But by differences of degree, the more traditional Latin and Asian cultures impoverish a woman s expectations for herself, binding her more tightly to the world of child-rearing, housekeeping, subservience to men, and poverty-level wage labor. In its traditional or modern versions, it is a world that supports virtues esteemed by clean room managers: diligence to demanding work, humility before male authority (there are probably no female clean-room managers in the Valley), and a halting estimation of self-worth. The women earn between $4.50 and $10.00 per hour—pay that requires regular overtime, or other incomes, to constitute a living wage in Silicon Valley. Many of the women are not wise to the traditions of American wage labor and workplace rights. This is disadvantage enough. Some, however, suffer a special anxiety: they are here without immigration cards, and stand to lose everything on a moment's notice. They are the prisoners of a humbling sociology of approval.

By dint of time, attention, and pampering, clean room work approaches that of a 24-hour nursery. For 6-7 days a week on 8-12 hour shifts around the clock, the women move gracefully from process to process, gently bearing cassettes or boats of delicate wafers from the photolithography of the steppers, to the arsine and chlorine doping of the ion implanters, to the acid baths and gas clouds of the wet and dry etchers. Even gloved hands are too rough for the brittle wafer; workers use vacuum wands, plastic tweezers, or custom pronged tools to "handle" them. Drilled by management in misplaced priorities, many women perceive the most demanding aspect of their work—wafer handling—as the most dangerous. This is because wafer accidents are not easily forgotten, by any-one.

Stamped on each wafer are perhaps 40 to 90 microchips. Workers learn quickly that the boat of 25 wafers they load and carry may represent thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars. To most of the meagerly paid clean-room workers, that is like holding the world in your hands, which are soon putrefying in clammy surgical gloves. And the wafers must be loaded into the boats, carried, and unloaded often; each is resurfaced, doped and etched up to nine times, microscopically scrutinized more than once, tested, and back-plated with gold. Wafer handling requires a sharp burst of concentration and worry that punctuates a routine of machine-tending that even clean room managers characterize as "dull" and "boring."

The pampering prevents accidents to the vulnerable wafers, but it abets fatigue, which many clean room workers relieve with nicotine. On breaks in company lunchrooms they can be seen sitting together smoking cigarettes with almost tribal formality. "It's a ritual you can do quickly and yet it will allow you to relax," observes a clean room manager who doesn't smoke. But you cannot smoke inside a clean room , where you may be stuck for hours at a time. To cope with the tedium and frequent overtime, a few succumb to the allure of amphetamines, though these are not favored as they are on computer assembly lines, probably because 'speed' taxes patience too severely for clean room work.

One of the most fatiguing and other-worldly tasks fall to those who sit atop stools and peer through German microscopes or into Japanese X-ray scanning screens. Through these portholes, they seek misalignments and the patterns of light, invisible to untrained eyes, that indicate scratches or particles on a wafer. Their discoveries may spell disaster for the company's chip yield and usually set in motion a micro-detective story. The investigation generates paranoia among workers who may be implicated. reassigned to another shift, or laid off during a blind prevention—the closing down of the clean room until technicians determine the cause of the yield bust. When the cause is detected, there is blame to assign, and temporary layoffs can become permanent. This is one reason yield figures are always on the minds and tongues of clean room workers, much in the way the latest stock market quotations preoccupy speculators.

Other concerns cement the clean room's attention to yield. Yield figures are how clean-room managers gauge work performance, how vice-presidents gauge clean-room management, and finally, how The Board reckons its competitive rank in the heat of production. In pursuit of a quarterly quota or a new product release (often arbitrarily scribbled in a marketing plan to please The Board), clean room managers may set entire shifts against each other in competition for the best yield. A surprisingly good yield may precipitate bonuses, free lunches, or spontaneous celebration. It may even temporarily relieve tension in executive stomach linings, bowels, and necks. High or low, the yield functions as a barometer of pressure felt by all. It is a fickle arbiter of human fate and perhaps the most conscious common frame of reference in the clean room. Like the Sirens' song, it focuses attention away from danger.


In the calculated isolation of the clean room, workers fashion the most sensitive and inscrutable computer components: a variety of chips, disk surfaces, and disk-drive heads. Their microscopic scale and their metamorphosis from mere sand and gas fall plausibly within the realms revelation and magic, even among engineers who design and control transubstantiation.

Managers compare the clean rooms they supervise to the conscientiously scrubbed intensive care units of hospitals. Both are micro-environments requiring special gowns, face masks, and artificial atmospheres. Both connote protection from unseen danger. Even the paths danger stalks are similar: the particles that destroy microchips and the viruses that infect ICU patients are measured in microns (millionths of a meter). The analogy conceals a horrible irony.
Engineers design clean rooms to protect modern machine parts—the inanimate "patients" workers treat to support electronic life. But clean rooms are neither clean nor safe for workers. The irony is easily lost in the loneliness, fatigue, and dull ritual of their work. But the undetected dangers produce human suffering that is no less palpable for going unexamined by industry, unreported in local media, and often unattributed by the victims.

Columnists and congressional committees perennially brood over the military's stockpiling of nerve gases. No such brooding accompanies the mundane exposure by electronics workers to arsine, phosphine, diborane and chlorine, the latter internationally abhorred over 60 years ago after its use as a weapon on the Western Front. These gases are prized by the semiconductor industry because they impart electrical properties to microchips. They are among the most toxic substances in the biosphere. When mixed and released under pressure at high temperatures and in extreme environments, they combine to hazardous effect—effects modern medicine studiously ignores.

The chemicals deployed by the semiconductor, printed circuit board and disk-drive industries include life-altering mutagens and carcinogens, as well as less mysterious gases and acids that scar and disfigure human tissue on contact. Many elude detection, despite the criminal reassurances of clean room managers, one of whom (with a Ph.D. in chemistry) told me that workers can sense chemicals "below the level of harm." Poor warning qualities , make most of these chemicals dangerous in a particularly sinister way. Still other qualities simultaneously enlarge and hide the danger.

Chemical injuries are confusing. They may not announce themselves immediately; trace toxins can accumulate in fatty tissue for years before a weight loss releases them into the victim's system. Then too, the symptoms induced by chronic exposure often are indistinct, masquerading as those accompanying common illness. Chemicals also can spontaneously create harmful compounds. One of many evacuations at a National Semiconductor clean room began with leaking silicon tetrachloride. Silicon tetrachloride hydrogen chloride fumes, which, when inhaled, react with moisture in mouth, throat, and lungs to form hydrochloric acid that dissolves living tissue.

Semantic conventions celebrate the confusion. In electronics workplaces. workers see and hear the industry's neutral designations: "agents." "chemicals," "gases." or perhaps "aggressive fluids." When encountered in soil, in ground water. or in sewage effluent. the same substances are identified by hydrologists and environmental officials as "contaminants," "poisons," and "toxic wastes. Another disarming convention: clean room ceilings contain "laminar flow filters" that "clean" the recirculating air in the work area. Engineers design similar filters into chemical pumps and equipment to purify" the gas or acid that etches the delicate circuitry in wafers. But the filters catch only particulates—solid microscopic matter—not fumes that kill brain and blood cells or strip human immune defenses.

How often are workers exposed to dangerous substances?

The answer must be reconstructed from scattered clues that occasionally slip through a tightly-meshed net of secrecy that shrouds the labor process. And the mesh is shrinking. Pleading the sanctity of "trade secrets" in a highly competitive market. the semiconductor industry's production techniques, chemicals—even the brand names of its clean room equipment—now constitute "proprietary information". In Silicon Valley, local fire departments are the only outside force privy to the chemicals unleashed by these firms. Daily logs that list evacuations and their effects. tapes from such fume-detection systems as are used, injured-worker dismissal memos—these clues are closely guarded by a handful of clean-room and plant managers and the vice-presidents to whom they report. During injured worker compensation hearings. the clues are withheld by obliging lawyers and judges, or otherwise simply evaporate like the volatile gases they point to.

With hundreds of clean rooms in Silicon Valley, evacuations probably occur weekly, though, like the mysterious runway fires at the Navy's Moffet Field, they are rarely reported. An IBM-San Jose worker told me of chemical leaks causing evacuations in his clean room an average of once every three months; he had experienced 20 evacuations.

Evacuations imply major exposures. These are likely outnumbered by chronic minor exposures of the sort that occur daily: leaky processing equipment that spews chlorine or silane clouds into the laminar flow; acetone-laced freon that blasts the faces of workers lifting wafers from ultrasonic vapor-cleaning equipment —the equivalent of sniffing airplane glue. Even hooded (ventilated) processing equipment leaks: A "state-of-the-art" dry etching machine designed for inherently more dangerous gallium arsenide wafers comes equipped with its own laminar flow. But access windows and cracks in the transparent plexiglass doors provide a way out for chlorine vapors. And with most sealed and hooded equipment, the chambers that seconds ago contained arsine, phosphine, and xylene are opened by clean room workers removing an old batch of wafers and inserting a new one.

What kinds of dangers are workers exposed to?

The human nose cannot detect arsine (gaseous arsenic) until it reaches a concentration twenty times the established (and probably understated) danger threshold; likewise with phosphine until it reaches a concentration six times the danger threshold, and diborane 33 times the threshold. Heart palpitations, pneumonia, anemia, skin cancer, and damage to the liver, kidneys, spinal column, and eyes are among the milder symptoms that we know these chemicals induce.

Hydrofluoric and hydrochloric acids are used to harden and etch microchips, in electroplating processes common to the computer industry, and by assemblers outside the clean room to retard oxidation of the solder that attaches chips to boards. Like the gases mentioned above, hydrofluoric acid cannot always be felt immediately. But even a dilute concentration can seep through the skin, destroying tissue in its wake, and causing extremely painful, slow-healing ulcers. The damage is not always as easily or immediately reckoned. The same acid may eat away at the calcium in a worker's bones, especially the lower back and pelvis, thus preparing the possibility years later of a fracture, not ostensibly linked to occupational environment.

Repeated exposure to hydrochloric acid irritates the skin and the upper air passages; the resulting symptoms—laryngitis, bronchitis, dermatitisdouble as those from a cold, hay fever, or other allergies. This resemblance makes it possible to dismiss the occupational connection, a resemblance electronics firms take systematic advantage of during injured workers' compensation hearings.

Trichloroethane (TCA) and methylene chloride, chloroform, and carbon tetrachloride are used as solvents to clean the chips, disk-drive actuators, and computer boards. They contain cancer-causing stabilizers. In small amounts they, too, are undetectable and cause dermatitis, depression, and mental dullness.

Many of these substances induce "sensitization" or "chemical hypersensitivity," a dread condition that multiplies the harmful effects even of small exposures to chemicals. This disease is easily the most controversial, confusing, and alarming one for all involved, including the medical community, among whom immunological knowledge is in a state of primitive accumulation. This condition is known variously as 'environmental illness," "20th-century disease," or "chemically induced T-cell inadequacy." Company lawyers and doctors dismiss it as a "psychometric disorder." But by less biased accounts, the diagnosis reads like a technical description of AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

"Chemically-induced AIDS provides a similar picture as virally-induced AIDS, "according to an immunologist who has treated over 400 cases of T-cell inadequacy, half of them Silicon Valley workers. The AIDS phobic American public knows nothing of its chemically-induced relative, even though it may be casually transmitted at workplaces where hundreds of thousands of women and men work.

The immune system is a crucible of microbiological war and peace. Whether incited by a perceived or real threat (a psycho/omatic border the immune system straddles to the consternation of parochial researchers) it acts as both sword and shield. But its sentinels are confused and deceived by a world whose substances tinker with the immunological balance evolution has struck. A plethora of new chemicals and viruses generates immense pressure to adapt, and to do so quickly. Apparently, this pressure pushes to the limit our immunological resources to preserve health in the interim.

The pressure to successfully adapt and preserve is played out microscopically. Essential to the body's immune system are the T-cells that detect disease at the cellular level. The sentinel T-cells sense an offending virus or chemical as it enters the body, and then dispatch B-cells, the antibodies or cellular foot soldiers, to dispel the invading substance.
Research suggests that the virally-induced AIDS afflicting the gay and IV-needle-using communities tends actually to deplete T-cells in its victims. In contrast, the limited and contested evidence available suggests that chemically-induced AIDS may render T-cells dysfunctional, rather than deplete them. When chronically exposed to one or a combination of toxic substances, an electronics worker's overstimulated T-cells may simply fail to regulate the B-cells properly. B-cells—and accompanying allergic reactions—are unleashed at the slightest provocation. The confused and overworked immune system fails, and in some cases, never recovers. As this occurs, mere traces of toxic substances can induce violent and life-threatening allergic responses. Workers who bring a history of allergies to the clean room seem to be predisposed to this condition.

The clean room is a chemical cornucopia; the chemicals it pours forth are found in products that occupy the aisles of pharmacies, hardware stories, automotive shops, and supermarkets and thus find their way into the cabinets and cupboards of kitchens, bedrooms, boudoirs, and bathrooms. These become quarantined territory for many chemically injured electronics workers. For example, workplace exposures to chlorine gas can result in allergic reactions even to mild laundry bleaches at home. Clean-room exposure to the fetal-toxin glycol ether may not only cause miscarriages, but may also induce hyperallergic reactions to the traces of glycol ether in printing ink, paint, perfume, cologne, and oven and glass cleaners.

With a weakened immune system, the injured worker is prey to a host of opportunistic infections and viruses. The list of symptoms and conditions is long and painful to contemplate: chronic headaches, hyperventilation, colds and influenza, short-term memory loss, laryngitis, eye, bladder, lung, breast, and vaginal infections, menstrual problems, inability to conceive, and spontaneous abortions, some of which have occurred in company washrooms. So insidious is the immunological damage that it may also compromise the effect of antibiotics and conventional treatments. Victims typically require a variety of expensive physical and psychological therapy.

Rivaling the physical misery of chemical injury is the isolation to which it banishes its victims, who now must avoid casual contact with chemicals that are everywhere. This can mean a forced and open-ended retreat from society—friends, lovers, parties, dining out, even walks or shopping trips.

The only feature San Jose News article on this topic provided a glimpse of a chemically-injured clean-room worker's modern hermitage:

"She doesn't venture out much beyond her house, which she cleans with nothing stronger than Ivory soap...She no longer keeps pets. She can't bathe her children: chemicals in the tap water make her sick. A trip to the grocery store means a raging headache and a nosebleed by the time she's through. Before she worked at AMD [Advanced Micro Devices], she reacted only to tomatoes and penicillin; her current list of allergies extends from auto exhaust, beef, and chlorine to wool."

Another disabled and now socially isolated worker told a Ms. Magazine journalist, "I used to have so many friends. I used to have parties." Violently allergic to hair spray, perfume, cigarette smoke and plagued with ever-present headaches, she has difficulty concentrating and remembering things. "I want to be sharp like I used to be. I want to be interesting."

In the constricted world of the chemically injured, we find the tragic apotheosis of the crescendo—the sense of isolation and removal from the world that the clean room imparts to its workers.

It is an old story. It recalls the maiming of meatpacking workers chronicled in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle or the stealing of breath from miners described in Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier. In those times, public pressure and direct action by enlightened and outraged workers and their allies promoted attention and redress, albeit too little and too late. Then the unambiguous evidence of industrial barbarism was forgotten.

The carnage in the electronics workplace is rarely scored in spilled human blood, more often in the invisible world of corpuscle and chromosome. It may have to grow considerably before the negligence is appreciated and acknowledged. Perhaps half a dozen magazines have run stories on the chemically injured workers of Silicon Valley; some of these deftly avoid obvious conclusions, diffuse responsibility for the atrocities, take corporate denials at face value, or conclude, as clean room managers often do today, that times have changed, that the dangers are no longer with us. Others conclude that more study is required before the danger can be properly understood. This last conclusion is probably correct, though inadequate. Unfortunately, only a handful of people not employed by electronics corporations understand the issues, and their suggestions of preemptive measures—protection that gives workers' health the benefit of the doubt—go unheeded.

When one considers that many of the dangers are avoidable: that existing toxic monitoring technology remains unsold for lack of demand; that installed monitors are turned off to save energy or tampered with to allow higher exposures; and that public officials fail to enforce existing laws, deny funding for potentially revealing studies. issue toothless warnings and not even token fines—then the oversight escalates into criminal negligence. The negligence is no less criminal for being the opaque product of essentially economic bureaucratic forces, rather than that of manifestly evil men.

The distinction is an instructive one. Clean room managers may genuinely care about their workers' health. But a low chip yield is a more likely source of insomnia because it is the more decisive force in the daily scheme of things. Privately, corporate executives may feel badly about the injuries inflicted by their ventures, but they comfort themselves with the notion that safety costs workers jobs by diverting funds away from "productive" investment.

And what of workers? Their ignorance and inaction can be excused only so long; how many of their sisters must be stricken, fired. and denied compensation by the Corporate Point of View before workers take heart. reject the divisive calculations of job security, and act accordingly?

What it points to is a conspiracy of unquestioned belief in the competitive pursuit of profitable technology. This pursuit underwrites the entire high technology project and prompts corporations to charter themselves in ways that preclude all but inhuman concerns: i.e. their product's margin, its market, and above all. its competition. Ah, competition. The Sirens sing of it. Inside the clean room its melodic dirge can be heard. Its rhythms score the hellish din of the crescendo above which we hear so little and understand even less.

by Dennis Hayes

For more about so-called "clean rooms", check out "Hot Under The Collar" in Issue 19.