South Korea Court Rules Worker’s Rare Disease Linked to Samsung Factory

By YOUKYUNG LEE | August 31, 2017

South Korea’s Supreme Court said a former worker in a Samsung LCD factory who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis should be recognized as having an occupationally caused disease, overturning lower courts’ verdicts that held lack of evidence against the worker.

In a milestone decision that could aid other sickened tech workers struggling to prove the cause of their diseases, the Supreme Court ruled there was a significant link between Lee Hee-jin’s disease and workplace hazards and her working conditions.

Lower courts had denied her claim, partly because no records of her workplace conditions were publicly available. The Labor Ministry and Samsung refused to disclose them when a lower court requested the information, citing trade secrets.

In its ruling Tuesday, the court said a lack of evidence, resulting from Samsung’s refusal to provide information about workplace conditions, citing trade secrets, and an inadequate investigation by the government should not be held against the sickened worker.

Instead, it said, such special circumstances should be considered in favor of the worker.

Lee, 33, began to work at a Samsung LCD factory in Cheonan, south of Seoul, in 2002 when she was a high school senior. She evaluated nearly one hundred display panels per hour on a conveyor belt, looking for defective panels and wiping them with a chemical substance known as isopropyl alcohol.

Three years after she joined Samsung Electronics, she first reported the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, a rare disease that affects central nervous system, which is diagnosed among 3.5 out of 100,000 people. She was 21. The average age of reporting multiple sclerosis in South Korea is 38.

A panel of four justices at the Supreme Court faulted the government agency tasked with investigating workplace conditions for failing to measure workers’ exposure levels. The ruling also noted that Samsung Electronics and the labor ministry refused to disclose information about chemical toxins at the LCD factory claiming that that they were trade secrets, making it impossible for the worker to prove the type of toxins she was exposed to or the level of exposure.

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