Toxic: Intel ordered to pay chip fab worker almost $1m after he was gassed at its facility in 2016

By Richard Speed

Intel must pay nearly $1.2m after a ruling in a lawsuit alleging injury caused by a toxic gas emission at one of its facilities.

Despite Chipzilla's attempts to dismiss the suit, Arizona district judge David Campbell found in favour [PDF] of Ahmad Alsadi to the tune of $921,188 and his wife, Youssra Lahlou, for $250,000 in a Tuesday filing.

Under the legal microscope was Chipzilla's development campus in Chandler, Arizona, and the industrial wastewater system (IWS) responsible for removing harmful substances from the wastewater produced by a fabrication operation in building CH8.

According to the filing, Alsadi, who was 24 years old at the time, was working for Intel contractor Jones Lange LaSalle (JLL), a company responsible for operating the IWS as well as the heating and air conditioning (HVAC) system at the facility.

Alsadi, a HVAC technician, was inadvertently exposed to hydrogen sulphide (H2S) gas emitted by the IWS on 28 February 2016 following "an error" made "by a JLL technician."

Colourless H2S gas is a nasty chemical compound for humans. Alongside its sulphurous smell, it is also poisonous, corrosive, and flammable.

The result, according to Alsadi and Lahlou, were "chronic and debilitating impairments that have eliminated Alsadi's ability to work and engage in normal life activities."

While Intel had employed JLL to operate the IWS, the court found that the chipmaker retained responsibility for the system. The ruling noted that Chipzilla also monitored the emissions from the IWS and, crucially, "made the decision to disable hydrogen cyanide monitors that were alerting to the presence of H2S and not to replace them with H2S monitors."

As for ventilation, fans mounted on the building containing the fabrication facility were set to blow exhaust in the direction of the building where Alsadi was working. The court found that Intel was also responsible for this system.

According to the judgement, on 27 February 2016, a JLL employee took a pair of probes in the IWS system offline for maintenance and did not put them back. The detoxifying agent Thio-Red was added to the wastewater by the system, which, when it failed to note the effect because of those missing probes, added some more. Eventually the pH of the wastewater was raised, which triggered the automatic addition of sulphuric acid.

"This continued for hours," the filing said, "into February 28, 2016, and was unknown to Alsadi and others who arrived for the night shift." The combination of Thio-Red and sulphuric acid produced H2S, which was emitted by the IWS.

H2S, according to court papers, "was a known potential byproduct of the IWS system," but Intel had decided not to install H2S monitors. It opted for fixed monitors for hydrogen cyanide instead. However, the presence of H2S tripped those alarms so Intel removed them. They were not replaced.

Intel's own industrial hygienist recommended a change to the exhaust system from indirect to direct and explained to the court: "So if it is direct exhaust, it's directly tied to something, so there are no emissions escaping, even if they are below the health and safety limits."

At the time of the incident, the exhaust was still indirect and there was no fixed monitoring in the building. "As JLL employee Torbert testified: '[W]e had no protections. They told us basically to trust our nose.'"

Basing worker safety on something smelling wrong is far from ideal, and the court agreed.

Alsadi was left with variety of conditions. The court found that "his persistent cough, coughing fits, bronchospasms, and post-tussive emesis" were caused by his exposure to H2S on 28 February 2016. The conditions, it found, "are likely to continue throughout Alsadi's life."

That said, the court also noted that while Alsadi lost his position as an HVAC technician at JLL because of the conditions, he had remained relatively active. He'd undertaken several trips, obtained his real estate licences in Arizona and California, and had been hired by West USA Realty.

While not being convinced by Intel's argument that Alsadi would suffer no damages thanks to his real estate agent career, the court also did not find the calculation of the present loss developed by the plaintiff of $1,121,525 persuasive either. Instead, the figure was set at $400,000.

A further $121,188 was added for medical costs and another "$400,000 for the permanent persistent cough, coughing fits, bronchospasms, and post-tussive emesis caused by Intel," making the award $921,188.

"Youssra Lahlou should recover $250,000 for the loss of consortium resulting from the limitations imposed on her husband and her life by Intel's negligence in this case."

An Intel spokesperson told The Register: "Intel has a well-known safety culture and the safety and well-being of our workforce is our top priority. We have well-documented processes and safety measures we expect all workers to follow. We are disappointed in this decision and we continue to believe that we acted properly." ®