Hyundai Rotem will be inspecting its train cars from Nov. 21 to Dec. 20 to ensure safety during the cold season. Above, a Hyundai Rotem's employee examines a train car. [HYUNDAI ROTEM]
Fatalities related to occupational accidents in Korea are steadily rising despite government efforts to reduce the number by implementing new laws and amending the existing laws.
The absence of self-regulation systems and the increasing number of industrial accidents in businesses with fewer than 50 employees are some of the major reasons.
Businesses with fewer than 50 employees are not subject to the Serious Accident Punishment Act, which came into effect in January this year.
Under the act, company owners, managers and corporations can be charged if they fail to properly implement safety practices and procedures and a casualty results from the negligence. The act applies to businesses with 50 or more employees. Those found to have violated the act can be jailed for a year or more or fined up to 1 billion won ($700,000).
The number of fatalities related to occupational accidents reached 200 with 224 deaths through October this year, according to the labor ministry’s data. This is a rise of three cases and 17 deaths on year.
The Ministry of Employment and Labor wants to take occupational fatalities to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average in the next five years.
The OECD average is 0.29 industrial accident deaths per 10,000 people per year, whereas Korea it is 0.43, according to data released by the labor ministry. The figure was a low for Korea but still ranked 34th amongst 38 member countries in the OECD.
The Yoon Seok-yeol administration was not the only government that put the matter on the agenda. Almost all governments have been drawing up plans to improve the situation, but despite continuous attempts, improvements are slow in coming.
While Korea’s industrial accident fatality rate did not show much improvement, rates for other countries dropped significantly in 2020.
“The difference comes from countries that are trying to reduce the number of these accidents solely by government restriction and those that are also implementing company self-regulation,” said Jun Hyoung-bae, a professor at the Kangwon National University’s School of Law.
The government said it will announce the road map to reduce the number of serious accidents this month. The road map is presumed to include a self-regulation system, which is created and established by the management and workers, moving on from its previous punishment and restriction-centered system.
The anticipated shift in policy direction by the government is mainly derived from the lesson that enforced safety measures do not have much effect when applied to industrial sites.
In January 2020, Korea amended the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The Serious Accident Punishment Act went into effect on January 27 this year.
Both laws put emphasis on punishment rather than prevention.
When the new law was enforced, political parties, including the People Power Party, Democratic Party and Justice Party, and labor said the new law would reduce industrial accidents.
Despite expectations, the number of serious accidents has increased.
The trend has been continuing for eight years. Over 800 people die at worksites every year in Korea.
A fire at the Hyundai Premium Outlet in Daejeon, an accident at SPL’s bread factory and a collapse of a construction site of a cold storage warehouse in Anseong, all led to deaths in recent months.
The percentage of fatalities not covered by the Serious Accidents Punishment Act due to the number of employees being fewer than 50 has rapidly risen, accounting for 80.9 percent of the total industrial accident fatalities.
The rate of serious accidents for businesses with 50 or more employees dropped relatively sharply from 0.53 per 10,000 in 2010 to 0.20 per 10,000 in 2021, while that for businesses with fewer than 50 employees it fell from 1.0 to 0.58.
Reducing the number of serious accidents taking place in smaller businesses would help in achieving the OECD average.
But regulating these small businesses is difficult for the government.
Data show self-regulation is a way of significantly lowering fatalities.
The industrial accident fatality rate sharply dropped from 2013 to 2014 when the government amended the occupational safety act and implemented the risk evaluation system. The implementation helped drop the rate from 0.71 per 10,000 in 2013 to 0.58 in 2014.
The risk evaluation system allows companies to identify risk factors of the business and draw measures to reduce them. But the effect did not last long as the rate remained stagnant after the sharp drop.
“The self-regulation system cannot show much effect under laws focused on punishment,” said a spokesperson from the labor ministry.
Only 33.8 percent of companies in Korea self-evaluated risks in 2019, according to the ministry.
“Big companies are establishing safety prevention systems by themselves but are not successfully executing them, while small and mid-sized companies are incapable of the prevention themselves,” said Lee Jung-sik, minister of employment and labor.
“Self-regulation systems should be implemented for direct safety prevention and to improve perspectives on the safety through experiences, eventually increasing the capability of businesses to prevent accidents at the site.”
BY KIM KI-CHAN, CHO JUNG-WOO [firstname.lastname@example.org]