Public concern has highlighted the issue of pollution from high technology. But much less attention is being given to the health of workers in the microelectronics industry.
''It is scandalous that not a single occupational health study is being done in the high-tech area'' in the United States, says Dr. Joseph LaDou, a health specialist in Santa Clara and the director of the Occupational Health Department at the University of California at San Francisco. The only major studies are being done in Europe.
The issue is stalled while the microelectronics industry and its critics are locked in a battle of statistics on workers' health. Companies tout a low injury rate; opponents say the statistics are flawed. Meanwhile, there have been increased health complaints over the last few years from workers exposed to solvents and acids.
Dr. LaDou charges that the industry, like others in the past, is taking a reactive rather than preventive approach to the problems of occupational illness. The death last summer of a worker at M/A-Com, a Massachusetts telecommunications company, from the inhalation of a highly poisonous gas has begun to focus attention on worker safety in high-tech.
The Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) cites 1982 government data showing the industry averaged only 3.8 cases of illness and injury per 100 workers, the third-lowest rate of 229 durable-goods manufacturing industries. ''Most of these chemicals have been used by this industry for 30 years, and there simply isn't any evidence that they are causing any major health problems, '' says SIA head Thomas Hinkelman.
Jay Jones of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in Cincinnati recently conducted a study of the technology used in the semiconductor industry to protect workers. ''We saw some pretty good technology, '' he says.
In general, the industry has taken an engineering approach to worker safety. ''Our attitude is that if the workers receive significant exposures, it is too late. It is better to do the engineering right,'' explains Larry Holbrook, director of Hewlett Packard's health and safety division.
Despite this, concern that such measures have not been adequate appears widespread among occupational health specialists in Silicon Valley. These physicians see peculiarities in the industry that they say make its health statistics unreliable. The data understate the problem, they say, because of the industry's high employee turnover rate. Workers tend to be young, minority women. Many simply quit if they experience health problems. Few file workmen's compensation claims.
Government standards for exposure to various substances, called threshold limit values (TLVs), are set chemical by chemical. This works well for most industries, because workers are exposed to only one or two different substances at a time. But in microelectronics they come in contact with a broad spectrum of chemicals. And workers, particularly in research and development labs, are exposed to a wide range of substances for which there is no prior industrial experience.
TLVs are normally averaged over a work day, an approach that works well in industries in which exposure levels remain relatively constant. But when a mishap occurs in the semiconductor industry, workers may experience a sudden, high exposure for a few minutes. When averaged over 8 hours, this may not exceed the TLV, but may have significant effects, doctors say.
Washington appears unlikely to support research to sort out the ambiguities. ''The federal government has pulled extremely far back in the monitoring of industrial performance,'' says Nicholas Ashford of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Policy Alternatives. ''There is simply no money available for this sort of work.''
''High-tech represents a tremendous opportunity to take a new approach to toxics,'' says Rand Wilson of the Communication Workers of America. ''We would like to see the industry take a high-tech approach to worker protection, but it is not something you can leave up to the companies.''
Asked why the industry isn't supporting such research, SIA's Hinkelman replies, ''Why? What's the evidence that there is any problem?'' The issue, he says, is being fomented by union sympathizers to aid attempts to organize the largely nonunion industry. LaDou, however, says he's convinced that ''the workers are telling us something profound, and we should be listening.''