5 workers at Hyundai Steel suffocate in furnace

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5 workers at Hyundai Steel suffocate in furnace

Five workers died after being suffocated inside an eight-meter-deep (26 feet) rotating furnace at a Hyundai Steel plant Friday due to a gas leak.

The workers were dismantling scaffolding following the completion of repair work on the furnace at the plant in Dangjin County, South Chungcheong, when a leak of argon gas overwhelmed them at 1:40 a.m. Friday, the steelmaker said in a release yesterday.

Argon is used to check molten metal pipelines in a furnace. Although it is not toxic, it is heavier than oxygen and can replace it in a closed space. It is colorless and odorless. The five worked for Korea Refractories, a Hyundai Steel subcontractor in charge of repairing furnaces at the Dangjin plant.

Whether the five victims followed correct safety procedures in the furnace is yet to be determined.

“The work did not involve gas-related operations,” said a Hyundai Steel official, asking for anonymity as the investigation is still ongoing. “They just had to dismantle scaffolding used for a repair job that was already done. We are working with relevant government offices to find out what caused the leak.”

The official said four of the five victims died at the site after collapsing while one worker died in an ambulance on the way to a hospital. The oldest was a 42-year-old man surnamed Lee, while the youngest was a 25-year-old man surnamed Nam.

The National Forensic Service sent agents yesterday to the site to determine what caused the gas leak. Local police and the Korea Gas Safety Corporation have also joined the probe.

Korea’s second-largest steelmaker yesterday offered a public apology and condolences to the victims’ families.

“We are now cooperating with related government agencies [to find out the exact cause of the incident] and will take measures to ensure safety standards to prevent an incident like this from occurring again,” said the company.

The Ministry of Employment and Labor reportedly believes Hyundai Steel should share responsibility for the accident if it failed to properly monitor repair work carried out in risky circumstances.

“Since the accident occurred during furnace repair work, not only the subcontracting firm but also Hyundai Steel should take responsibility,” a ministry official was quoted as saying by Yonhap News Agency.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions lashed out at Hyundai Steel in a statement issued yesterday, saying a total of six subcontracted workers have lost their lives while constructing a furnace at the Dangjin plant since last September. The union said a total of 12 workers have died or been injured over the past year at that particular plant.

By Kang Jin-kyu [jkkang2@joongang.co.kr]

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