Safety lessons from across the aisle

Safety lessons from across the aisle

George D. Miller

Editorial Director

Periodically, the topic of semiconductor cleanroom safety surfaces. It`s usually the result of a complaint voiced or a lawsuit filed, with an individual or group claiming damages due to medical problems suffered in the course of semiconductor production work.

Most recently, as reported in The Wall Street Journal [“Computer Chip Plants Aren`t as Safe and Clean As Billed, Some Say,” October 5, 1998, p. 1], it`s former employees of the National Semiconductor Corp. facility in Greenock, Scotland, alleging a variety of serious medical problems that they believe stem from their work. The Journal did its usual thorough job of investigating and reporting, reciting the claims of the individuals (dating back to the 1970s), reciting the company response to those claims, and even getting insight from such industry groups as the Semiconductor Industry Association. The Journal then talks to university toxicology experts, Britain`s occupational safety agency, the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

But as balanced as the Journal report appears to be, what`s missing is perspective from the groups who are truly expert in keeping contaminants away from workers in clean and controlled production environments: those in the biotechnology sector and the life sciences field in general.

This is not a semiconductor issue, it`s a contamination control issue. There are different standards and concerns in the semiconductor and biotech industries, as we have reported on this topic [“Lawsuits prompt focus on cleanroom safety,” June 1998, p.1]. Some would say that on the semiconductor side, the emphasis is on keeping contaminants away from the product; in biotech, it`s keeping the biohazard away from the people. Naturally, the economics of each are different.

To be sure, a lot has changed in semiconductor processing since the late 1970s, the time from which these latest complaints originate. Great strides have been made in chemical handling and in cleanroom protocol. But there is still a stubborn resistance, or “industrial prejudice,” as we have reported, that keeps the semiconductor and life sciences camps from sharing contamination control information that would be helpful to both [“Data sharing needed in cleanroom research,” August 1998, p.1]. Especially today, when words like “nutriceutical” begin to creep into our high-tech vocabulary, and biotechnology companies begin to insert DNA onto silicon chips and then monitor the behavior of cells, the idea of information sharing should become less objectionable to contamination control professionals of any given stripe.

Before concerned industry groups call for the launching of any high-priced initiatives concerning cleanroom safety on the semiconductor side, let`s check with “our esteemed colleagues across the aisle,” as the politicians like to say, and see what the practitioners of contamination control in the life sciences field can teach us.


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