updated 05:54 pm EST, Mon January 28, 2013
Pair of hydrofluoric acid leaks not reported to authorities
Korean news agencies are reporting that electronics giant Samsung is covering up a hydrogen fluoride tank gas leak that killed one worker, and hospitalized four in a South Korean plinth. The incident began last night at 11PM local time, when a large tank of hydrofluoric acid started leaking. Initially stopped by workers, the patch gave out at about 5AM local time, releasing 10 liters of aerosolized acid to the environment. Samsung did not report the incident to local authorities until 3PM, nearly 14 hours after the initial incident, and an hour after a worker for the maintenance crew died.
Hydrofluoric acid is highly toxic, a contact poison with effects on the nervous system. The acid can cause cardiac arrest from interference with calcium metabolism and death, with exposure to only 25 square inches of skin. The acid is used to etch silicon wafers and remove impurities from stainless steel.
Samsung did confirm the leak and claimed that "a small amount of diluted hydrofluoric acid leaked early Monday morning during maintenance at one of the gas and chemical supply systems at the Hwaseong site." Samsung also reported that production was never stopped at the chip fabrication plant. Construction and chemical storage regulations generally require a second level of environmental leak prevention, such as a larger containment building surrounding the storage vessel, so it is likely that the greater populace was in no danger, especially if the volumes reported by Samsung well after the fact are accurate.
Prior to the casualty response, the company was told the leak was minimal, and simply covered it with a plastic bag. A Samsung spokesperson told Korean news agency Yonhap that the worker that died was not wearing a hazard suit, but was only wearing respiratory protection of some sort. The four hospitalized workers were wearing full hazard suits, and spent a few hours in the hospital from exposure despite their protective gear.
Samsung is being investigated by the local government to see if any worker and public safety laws were violated by not reporting the leak earlier, or of the workers were insufficiently provided with protective gear. Samsung claims that it will take any necessary action to prevent a repeat of the accident and resultant fatality.