26 September 2023
Samsung Semiconductor Female Worker's 'Chronic Kidney Disease' Recognized in First Workers' Compensation Case
A worker who joined Samsung Electronics' semiconductor factory at the age of 18 and worked as an etching operator (a process that uses the corrosive effects of chemicals to remove certain substances from wafers) for 15 years has been recognized as a compensable occupational illness by a court. This is the first time that a female semiconductor worker's chronic kidney disease has been recognized as an occupational disease.
On the 8th, Judge Jang Woo-seok of the Seoul Administrative Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by Ms. Kim (47) against the Korea Workers’ Compensation & Welfare Service to cancel a medical treatment denial.
After graduating from high school, Ms. Kim joined Samsung Electronics' Giheung Plant in May 1995 and worked as an operator in the etching process until February 2011. In 2011, she was assigned to manage the supply of new masks. As an operator, Kim was exposed to various harmful substances and worked night shifts. In May 2010, 15 years after joining the company, she was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease. In November 2016, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Ms. Kim, who left her job in February 2018, applied for workers' compensation for chronic kidney disease and breast cancer. The Korea Workers’ Compensation & Welfare Service approved the breast cancer claim, but denied the chronic kidney disease claim, saying it was difficult to prove a causal relationship between the disease and work. Ms. Kim filed a lawsuit in September 2021, claiming that “chronic kidney disease is also an occupational illness.”
The Court of First Instance overturned the decision of the Korea Workers’ Compensation & Welfare Service. “It can be concluded that the hazardous substances to which Mr. Kim was continuously exposed during his employment at the workplace, as well as the work environment hazards such as shift work, caused the development of chronic kidney disease or at least accelerated or aggravated its development beyond the natural rate of progression,” the court said.
The tribunal was not bound by the study's findings that the concentrations of hazardous substances measured at Kim's workplace since 2004 were below the permissible levels. “One-time measurements have their limitations as a measure of the actual work environment, and the risk of harm may be increased by combined exposure to multiple hazards or long hours of work,” the tribunal said. “In view of the fact that it is not possible to exclude the possibility of momentarily high concentrations of chemicals depending on the situation at the time of work, that even exposure levels below the limit can cause health impairment depending on personal and constitutional factors, and that there is no data on the measurement of hazardous factors from 1995 to 2003, when Kim worked, it cannot be concluded that the hazardous substances are not likely to cause health impairment to Kim based on the fact that there are studies showing that the concentration of hazardous substances after 2004 is below the limit.”
The tribunal also found that working night shifts contributed to Kim's illness. “It cannot be ruled out that the irregular sleep and disrupted circadian rhythms caused by the shift work may have contributed to the development or progression of the disease,” the tribunal said.
“The ruling is significant because it shows that when there is no data on a worker's past work environment, the court can actively look at various indirect facts about the work to determine the extent of past exposure,” said Lim Jawoon, a lawyer at the law firm that represented Kim.
Ms. Kim's husband told the Supporters for the Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor Industry (SHARPS), “My wife is currently undergoing hemodialysis three times a week and is in poor physical condition. I'm happy that the workers' compensation was approved, but I'm worried that the Korea Workers’ Compensation & Welfare Service will appeal. I hope they don't appeal as we have waited four years for a favorable ruling after filing for workers' compensation.”