A founding father of semiconductor safety

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By David H. Freedman

09.22.2022

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When Ed Sawicki returned from Vietnam in 1971, he faced a struggle. “I felt completely lost, and I was drinking heavily,” he says. “I knew I needed to pull my life back together, but I wasn’t sure how.”

There was a lot for him to process. He had enlisted in the Army in 1966 when he was 19 and became a Green Beret, one of the storied, elite soldiers that were the Special Forces of that time. Assigned a specialty as a demolitions engineer, he was sent to Vietnam and given increasingly secretive and dangerous missions far into enemy territory. On one day alone, 17 of his comrades were killed in action, the worst loss in the history of the Green Berets. “I thought I was a dead man,” he says.

He survived, leaving the Army with a Bronze Star, among other Army combat commendations. But back at home near Santa Clara, California, he wondered how best to move on with his life. Figuring a college degree would help, he enrolled at nearby San Jose State University to study engineering and looked for a job to make ends meet. With his military experience, he landed a series of short-term security gigs, including for a local sheriff’s department, a private detective agency, and Pinkerton. In 1973, he took a job working security for chipmaker Signetics. When the company’s safety engineer left, Sawicki’s boss asked him to add safety to his responsibilities.

Sawicki’s experience in demolition would prove all too relevant to his new role. The list of chemicals used in the early days of chipmaking was a who’s who of volatility and potential toxicity, including arsine, silane, lead, arsenic, hydrochloric acid, and benzene. “Silane is 9× as explosive as TNT by weight,” Sawicki points out. “These were nasty chemicals, and the industry had some hellacious accidents.”

Yet most companies had done little to tame the risks. In the early 1970s, the employees working with these chemicals often did not wear protective gear, and some of the chemicals were being poured into the sewage system or buried. Now concerns were suddenly being raised at some companies about possible lawsuits, union actions, and especially the risks of trouble with regulators. In 1970, Congress created both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to deal with these kinds of problems. Indeed, over the next 10 years, all these concerns would morph into existential threats to the semiconductor industry. Soon, both the San Jose Mercury News and the New York Times would be cataloging the industry’s troubled record.

But back in 1973, Sawicki was shocked at how few precautions Signetics was taking. There were no sound plans in place for responding to a potential chemical emergency, and few employees had much training in safety. Yet Sawicki had little authority or budget to make the bigger, costly changes he felt were called for. Then in 1974, he heard that a fast-growing startup called Intel was looking for a safety engineer to make real improvements. “I had to go through five rounds of interviews, but I got the job,” he recalls.

, and no company existed as a role model. At Intel, Sawicki realized he’d have to create that model. Crucially, the company was supportive. “There was a lot of new stuff I wanted to do, and Intel let me do it,” he says. He brought in scientists, engineers, and physicians from Harvard University and other top institutions who specialized in analyzing toxic and volatile chemicals and their impact on humans, often applying lessons learned in the mining industry. He didn’t know it, but he was helping to grow the nascent field of what would become known as “industrial hygiene,” which applied science to improving health and safety in industry.

One important first step was figuring out how to even tell if there was a potential exposure to a dangerous chemical on the manufacturing floor. At the time, there was no device on the market known to be capable of rapid on-site detection of the toxic gases used in chip production — and thus no way of getting a warning about a gas leak and the need for evacuation until people started getting sick.

Sawicki brought in experts from a Connecticut company called Wilkes-Foxboro that made infrared spectrometers, in the hopes that the firm’s technology could be applied to provide that heads up. “At 2 am on a Sunday morning, we went into the plant wearing gas masks and started testing to see if the equipment could pick up the gases,” says Sawicki. “We were the first to set up a system that could sound the alarm on a leak.”

Sawicki realized that a leak or explosion would require rapid and effective action from first responders. But the industry had not worked with local fire departments to ensure they were aware of the risks and prepared to address an incident. So Sawicki set up an in-house fire brigade and emergency control team trained to use special breathing and monitoring equipment and that drilled on rapid response. “We had the only HAZMAT team in the South Bay area,” he says. “Local fire departments called us in to help them with incidents at other locations.”

Thanks to Sawicki’s efforts, word traveled around Silicon Valley that Intel was the first major semiconductor company to clean up its act. Sawicki soon became a familiar face on Bay Area TV providing insights into the latest industry safety incident or scandal. Recognizing the growing importance of his efforts to the company, Intel created a then-novel executive position for him: global director of health and safety.

In 1979, Sawicki decided to focus on helping the rest of the industry fix its by-then-scandal-ridden safety and health problems, so he left Intel to become a consultant. He not only worked with most major semiconductor companies but consulted with several Silicon Valley fire departments to help them build their own chemical emergency response capabilities, receiving commendations from Santa Clara and Sunnyvale, among other communities. Recognizing that the industry should be collaborating rather than competing on safety, Sawicki helped found the Semiconductor Safety Association — which later became the Semiconductor Environmental Safety and Health Association (SESHA) — and the Bay Area Electronics Safety Group, both of which were later bestowed top honors on him.

Even further extending his influence, Sawicki founded one of the nation’s first graduate programs in environmental and industrial toxicology at the University of San Francisco. He also lectured at Harvard, Stanford, and the University of California, Berkeley, among other schools. Maintaining the top-secret clearance he earned during his military days, which included access to nuclear materials, he consulted on safety to highly classified labs run by the national intelligence community, as well as to NASA and other government agencies. And he worked with the United Nations, as well as the governments of South Korea, Singapore, the Philippines, and Taiwan, helping to craft international electronics manufacturing safety policies.

Before finally retiring, Sawicki spent seven years heading health, safety, and environment at the semiconductor company Applied Materials, which at the time he joined was dealing with 425 government citations that had left the company’s executives facing criminal charges. “In those seven years, the company went from the worst in Silicon Valley to the best in safety,” says Sawicki.

Although retired and now disabled, Sawicki, 75, still does not shrink from challenges. In recent years, he has competed in shot put at the Valor Games, the Olympics of disabled military veterans. But he takes special pride in having helped the semiconductor industry first face up to its obligation to the health and safety of workers and communities. Of all the professional titles he earned, his favorite is the one that the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health bestowed on him in a report: “They call me ‘the father of semiconductor safety,'” he says. “There’s nothing left on my bucket list.”

David H. Freedman is a Boston-based science writer. His articles appear in The Atlantic, Newsweek, Discover, Marker by Medium, and Wired, among many other publications. He is the author of five books, the most recent being “Wrong,” about the failure of expertise.

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