Boiling Frogs-Intel vs. the Village

"Boiling Frogs - Intel vs. the Village" recounts the story of Intel Rio Rancho's impact on the air and water in the Village of Corrales from the mid-1980s to the present day. Updates to this ongoing saga will be posted here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Intel Whistleblower Tells of Toxic Exposures

Written by Jeff Radford
Corrales Comment
Tuesday, 18 December 2007

The third former Intel employee whistleblower to speak out publicly about the company's toxic chemical usage believes such factories shouldn't be allowed near residential areas.

In an interview following his remarks November 7 to officials with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), Patrick Callahan said, "I'm deeply concerned about the community. We shouldn't have chemical factories next to our schools and neighborhoods, but I'm more concerned about the workers themselves."

Callahan, who worked for Intel for 18 years, eventually as a senior technician and manufacturing safety specialist, called for a thorough review of presumed safe levels of exposure to industrial chemicals.

Callahan said his own exposures to toxic chemicals at Intel caused chronic liver damage. "The bottom line is, whoever is in charge of determining what level of chemicals is safe needs to go back and re-visit all of that. Most of that data was set in the Sixties, and the industry has changed.

As far as putting computer chip factories next to schools and in residential neighborhoods, that's just ridiculous. That needs to change."

"Now, are you or I or anybody going to be able to influence a $10 billion corporation to move move their $3 billion factory out to the desert where it's not next to a neighborhood? I seriously doubt it."

Callahan recounted several incidents at Intel in which he was exposed to toxic chemicals. He detailed his repeated attempts to convince Intel managers to follow safety procedures established at the corporate level.

"The purpose of me coming forward," Callahan said, "is to share this information to make it safer for workers and to educate the public on what goes on, and maybe with the right momentum, people can make changes and not put these factories right next to people's schools.

"You know, technology is inextricably part of our lives. It's used in everything from kid's video games to your microwaves to your cars to everything, and it has improved the lives of others.

"But it doesn't have to be done in neighborhoods next to where people live."
Callahan said the Intel Rio Rancho plant is far from the worst semi-conductor facility he has seen. The problem, he suggested, is that the microchip making process was invented by engineers with little concern about the effects of industrial chemicals on humans. "The inventors are engineers, not industrial hygiene researchers. They invented machines and figured out 'if you mix this chemical and put it in a plasma field you can etch off metal."

"Brilliant people came up with all the steps to make computer chips, but they never realized what the side-effects were to themselves or the workers.

"And I think they're still not aware of it, although they're obviously more aware of it."

Callahan said he has never filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) "because I didn't understand what the rules were."

He also doubts the federal workplace regulations set realistic exposure limits. "OSHA and other agencies determine what the levels of any given chemical are that you can safely breathe for eight hours. There are other values for what is IDLH, 'immediately dangerous to life and health.'

"But what they never thought about is that those values are set for an eight-hour work day. But at most computer chip factories you work 12 hours or more a day.

"Not only that, you're exposed to multiple chemicals during the course of a day.
"When I had chronic liver disease, I went through research for a potential lawsuit. I did a lot of research on the internet. I was in contact with industrial hygiene researchers at the University of California-Berkeley.

"They all said that [microchip tool] maintenance workers like myself had the highest levels of chemical exposures of any workers in any industry in America from the late 1970s to the early 1990s.

"By being exposed to multiple chemicals in a longer than eight-hour work day, we were served a 'toxic cocktail.' But there is no way to quantify what we were exposed to."

At times, Callahan's exposure was extremely acute, he said. "In approximately 1989, I was actually cleaning some arsenic-contaminated parts with a slurry bead blaster and the system over-pressurized and it blew a hose.

"It was supposed to be a hard-plumbed, but it was soft-plumbed. So a fitting blew up, and I was hosed from head-to-toe with arsenic slurry water. I went through urine analysis testing then and I came out fine.

"Then in 1995, I was changing a toxic gas bottle in the clean room following the normal procedure, and a co-worker decided he wanted to do something different

"Now, when you're changing these bottles, an exposure of 200 parts per million is a lethal dose. We're wearing air-line respirators and the whole nine yards.
"I'm doing the dangerous work and he decides I should do something different, and we have a little tiff. As a result of that tiff, they assign me to the arsenic bead blast room to train young technician how to clean those parts.

"They had just built a brand-new arsenic parts clean up for the implant area, and we were cleaning parts there for a number of months. Then in September 1995, some facility technicians knocked on the door and said, "˜what are you guys doing in here? There's no exhaust on this, you shouldn't even be in here."

"We evacuated the room, and I started looking into the situation. It turns out I uncovered the safety sign-off sheets. Whenever Intel installs a machine, or builds a parts cleaning room, they go through a three-level safety sign-off.

"As part of safety level two, whenever you are using toxic chemicals and you have an exhaust system, you are supposed to have visible and audible alarms in case of exhaust failure so you know to evacuate.

"They had signed off on those sheets that they had installed those alarms in that room, and they didn't. So I took it to corporate EHS [Environment and Health Safety].

"At about the same time, I was taken into a meeting with the manufacturing manager, Gary Hensley, my supervisor and a site safety manager. At that time I was a grade 57 tech specialist, which is the highest level you can be as a technician.

"I was told by Mr. Hensley, verbatim, "˜Techs at your grade level should cover this up and just go fix the issue."

"There were five other people involved, and there were actually previous safety incidents in that new room that we didn't even know about," Callahan continued. "So I told Mr. Hensley quite frankly, "˜Here's the problem. Here are three solutions. If I wasn't wanting to play ball, you'd be talking to an attorney right now, because you guys screwed up huge."

"The site safety manager awarded me for coming forward with this; my supervisor later pretty much punished me for it, and Gary Hensley just screamed at me, that I should just cover it up"

He cited another run-in with managers over worker safety in the late 1990s. "From 1998 to 2003 I worked in automation, which is all the robots that move the product around the factory. The only chemical I worked with then was isopropyl alcohol, which we used to wipe down machines, and I breathed tons of it.

"That's why I think my liver enzymes never corrected themselves until I left Intel."

"When I joined that group, within the first day, the contractors I worked with were violating electrical safety. They were working live electrical circuits with no safety training and without proper equipment. They refused to wear safety equipment."

Callahan said he pointed the problem out to managers. "I was told at that point, '˜you should be happy you have a job and you should keep your mouth shut.' My Intel manager told me that"

Callahan said around 2002, Intel began installing "huge robotic stockers that weighed roughly 4,000 pounds and moved 90 inches a second.

"You're not supposed to be inside the machine when they're moving because you could get killed," he explained. "But I caught the vendors working inside them energized, putting their life and limb at risk. I went to them and said, '˜Everybody out of the pool, you can't do this."

"They would go to the managers and say '˜He's a bad team player. I'm the safety team leader, but I'm getting written warnings for bringing up the issues."

He said the situation got worse when people installed high-voltage tools without labeling the electrical cables. "That's a direct violation of corporate safety level one," Callahan pointed out. "I went to my supervisors and managers and said, '˜I know you're trying to meet a deadline, but you cannot do this. You can't release a machine for us to work on without labeling the electrical panels."

"I basically couldn't get anybody on the site to listen to me, so my supervisor said to close the issue. I took it to corporate safety, and after eight months of attempted meetings, they got everybody in a room and determined that they were actually wrong and I was right. They had to start labeling the panels.

"After that, the inquisition started." Callahan said he was subject to constant harassment and fault-finding which he considered retaliation.

Although he was subjected to several written warnings about his work, Callahan pointed out that over his 18 year career at Intel, "I had at least three or four corporate-level awards, a half-dozen site-level awards, I mean, I was recognized as an outstanding employee, but then every time I would bring up an issue, I would get dinged; so it was this merry-go-round from hell."

Callahan was asked whether he was aware of any incidents inside the plant that would have health consequences to nearby residents. He replied: "I'm aware that if the people working there do poor maintenance on the [acid gas] scrubbers or other equipment, then chemicals will be released. It has happened."

He related a situation in 1998 when he worked for a corporate level installation team on Fab 11. "When I joined that group I realized they weren't doing the proper leak-checking on the pumps that we pump toxic chemicals through.

"I went to the managers and asked '˜Why aren't you doing a complete leak-check for the whole system before you introduce chemicals to the machine?"

" had so many flippant answers like, '˜Well, we can't possibly train these guys on how to leak-check,' or 'We don't have this or that equipment."

He said he insisted, pointing out that "If you don't do it, you can expose facility workers and people who work downstairs to chemicals.

"In the best case scenario, if it's a small leak, the chemicals that you're pumping will mix with air because of the leak and cause the pump to degrade in performance, and you'll actually start scrapping wafers. Your product will suffer."

"Worst case: people get hurt; best case: you scrap wafers that cost millions and millions of dollars."

"But nobody would listen to me. During that time frame, people who worked on the machine next to me turned on the gas and people who were down next to the pumps got exposed to chemicals [and] went to the hospital."

As a result, Callahan said, an emergency meeting was held. "I said 'This is what I'm talking about. If you leak-check everything you can preclude that from happening."

He said he then essentially wrote Intel's leak-check procedure, although he was never given credit for it.

"They started leak-checking after the fact," he stressed. "I don't know if that kind of problem could directly affect the community, but it definitely affects people there."

He summed up by noting, "Intel's public relations people come out and say they're deeply concerned about the community. But if they're not concerned about exposing their own employees, I don't think they're deeply concerned about the community."


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