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Making industrial sites safer

Dec 11,2019
A year ago, a young life was brutally cut short after he was sucked into a coal conveyor belt while carrying out an inspection alone at night at a power plant in Taean County, South Chungcheong. After the death of 24-year-old contract worker Kim Yong-gyun, people called for better protections for workers. The so-called Kim Yong-gyun bill, dubbed the Industrial Safety and Welfare Law, aims to make sites safer for laborers doing hazardous work.

But even though the law goes into effect next year, not much has changed. In fact, industrial accidents have worsened. The number of workers injured on the job rose 4.9 percent on year, to tally at 69,568 as of September this year. Of them, 667 died, meaning that 75 people died each month. Either they fall to their death or were crushed under conveyor belts. Of those who died, 35 were younger than 24. Korea has the highest number of fatalities from industrial accidents among the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

A survey by the Ministry of Employment and Labor also mirrored the grave situation. After an unannounced safety examination of 399 public and private work sites, 306 — or 77 percent — received remedial orders. Of them, 202 were fined. One power plant did not even install a safety belt on a coal conveyor even after Kim’s death.

Small penalties is one reason why. Fines average 1.5 million won ($1,260), which is cheaper than the cost for upholding safety measures. One survey found that the fine given to the employer accountable for the death of outsourced worker is a mere 4.3 million won. The Kim Yong-gyun law will raise the maximum fine to 1 billion won. In an interview, Labor Minister Lee Jae-gap said the ministry will petition for harsher sentencing for the employer accountable for industrial deaths.

Companies must change too. If they avoid safety protections for outsourced workers, they are neglecting their fundamental duty to society. They will be shunned by consumers for placing profit above life.

The consulting and administration of safety measures could burden small and mid-sized workplaces, where 93 percent of occupational deaths take place. Therefore, the government needs to consider subsidizing some of the smaller workplaces. Investing to make industrial sites safer is a true pro-labor policy.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 10, Page 30