The American Public Health Association’s (APHA) Occupational Health & Safety Section has announced the winners of its 2010 Occupational Health & Safety Awards. For their outstanding work to improve workers’ health and safety rights and working conditions both in the U.S. and internationally, the 2010 awards recognize five individuals. among whom Dr. Jeong-ok Kong.
Dr Kong is an occupational health physician who has advocated on behalf of Korean auto and rail industry workers through the Korea Institute of Labor Safety and Health, (KILSH), and most recently for semiconductor industry cancer victims through the organization known as SHARPS (Supporters of Health And Rights of People in Semiconductor Industry), writes Elizabeth Grossman on 31 August 2010.
Dr. Kong has faced particularly daunting challenges in her work, especially when advocating on behalf of young workers at Samsung’s Korean semiconductor plants who’ve been stricken with crippling and fatal diseases. According to Korean news media accounts, SHARPS, and other NGOs, there are more than 20 documented cases of Samsung workers who’ve been diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma, and other cancers. At least nine have died of such diseases. Other Samsung workers at these plants are known to be suffering from skin disorders, neuropathy, fertility problems including miscarriages, and chronic nosebleeds.
Dr. Kong has been working to bring international attention to these cases and to win acknowledgement – and action – from Samsung. Workers and their representatives believe exposure to benzene and other carcinogenic chemicals as well as radiation in confined spaces over long hours may be causing these illnesses. Samsung has said it doesn’t use benzene, but is now undertaking an investigation.
Among the challenges Dr. Kong has faced are the Korean restrictions on public assembly, as evidenced this April when she and others holding a press conference were arrested following the funeral service to honor Park Ji-Yeon, a Samsung worker who died of leukemia on March 31, 2010 at age 23. Dr. Kong and seven others were arrested and held at a police station for two days.
In July, Samsung announced it had hired a consulting firm to conduct a year-long investigation of the cluster of leukemia cases at its factories outside of Seoul. According to the AP, as reported in The Boston Globe, Samsung says the investigators will work in consultation with experts from the Harvard University School of Public Health, and “be given complete access to Samsung’s semiconductor manufacturing facilities.” The study will look at both chemical and radiation exposures that might be linked to these and other diseases.
When Elisabeth Grossman wrote to congratulate Dr. Kong on her APHA award she replied, “Thank you very much. I don’t think I deserve to get it. But I believe it would encourage my comrade of SHARPs and hope to be a chance to share and spread our struggle with many others.”
The OHS Section awards will be presented on November 9th at the APHA annual meeting in Denver.