`Clean' computer chip industry plans to study work place risks

Computer-chip manufacturers, proud of their reputation as America's ``clean industry,'' are beginning to respond to charges that their assembly plants are unsafe for workers. United States Secretary of Labor William E. Brock recently ordered a federal review of a study of a semiconductor plant in Massachusetts that, among other things, found an unusually high rate of miscarriages among women in the chip-production area.

Mr. Brock was responding to concerns raised by the Communications Workers of America (CWA), which lambasted occupational-health standards in the semiconductor industry last month at the annual AFL-CIO conference.

In the wake of the Massachusetts study, conducted for Digital Equipment Corporation, the Semiconductor Industry Association has ordered a study of the reproductive health of workers in the industry. The association has established a high-level task force to study reproductive health of semiconductor workers. It will also examine whether workers experience an unusual rate of other physical problems, including those mentioned in the Digital report.

The worker health study was the first ever undertaken by a chip manufacturer. The findings prompted Digital to reiterate to workers its policy of urging pregnant women to transfer to a comparable job out of ``clean room'' production areas, and it took the additional step of offering free pregnancy tests to women workers.

Digital also shared its findings with other chip manufacturers. As a result, American Telephone & Telegraph in mid-January removed all pregnant women from computer-chip production jobs. ``We received a lot of praise for undertaking the study, for our openness in revealing the results, and for involving employees all along the way,'' says Digital spokesman Jeffry Gibson.

But the CWA says that urging pregnant women to transfer to other departments may, in fact, be discriminatory.

``Don't remove the workers from the workplace. Remove the toxic chemicals,'' says CWA spokesman Steve Rosenthal. Involved are a number of substances and gases, including arsenate, cadmium, gallium, cadmium, and glycol ethers.

Excluding pregnant or fertile women from the workplace does not really solve the problem of worker exposure to hazardous substances, agrees lawyer Joan E. Bertin, associate director of the Women's Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. In limited legal tests since 1981, three federal courts have ruled that fetal-protection policies discriminate against women, she says. Courts have ruled such policies are permissible only if a company can prove a risk to the fetus, and if there is no similar risk to male workers, Ms. Bertin says.

A recent study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found dramatically reduced sperm counts among male workers exposed to glycol ethers, a family of solvents used in the plastics, paint, and electronics industries.

The CWA, in its criticism of an industry whose work force is primarily nonunion, says semiconductor workers would be better off with union representation. On March 2 the union began publicizing its health concerns in radio advertisements broadcast in the nation's four major chip-manufacturing regions - California's Silicon Valley, Boston's Route 128, upstate New York, and Austin, Texas.

Steven Pedersen of the industry association points out that the computer-chip industry is one of the few that compiles its own data on illness and injury among workers. He adds that industry standards for use of chemicals are well within the exposure limits for substances regulated by the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

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