Pay heed to complaintsA strong law punishing employers for industrial accidents goes into effect from Thursday. The Severe Accidents Punishment Act has been designed to prevent fatal casualties at industrial sites such as the recent collapse of a 39-story apartment building under construction in Gwangju and the death of an engineer at a thermal power station in 2018. Industrial accidents killed 828 workers last year. The new law will sentence the employer or chief of management to less than 1 year in prison or 1 billion won ($835,630) in fines for a serious industrial accident caused by slack safety obligations.
Big construction companies have begun to seat chief officers for safety and outside experts to strengthen safety rules. Construction sites have strictly mandated wearing of safety helmets and taking precautions against any accidents.
But adverse effects may be inevitable. Builders are fearful of punishment because too many provisions are unrealistic at construction sites. Big companies are better off, but smaller players complain they lack expertise and funds to fully comply with the new law. Eight-point-seven percent of deaths from industrial accidents took place in workplaces employing less than 50 people.
In a press conference on Monday, the human resource committee of the Korea Federation of SMEs complained that though the new law has the world’s strongest penalty, few can confidently say they can fully abide the provisions. It urged a legislative review to exempt penalization in case serious wrongdoings or bad intentions by the employer are not found. Some complain it could be better to fold the business to avoid arrest. The law cannot fulfill its goal just by strengthening penalizations without addressing the fundamental problems at construction sites.
The law is meant to prevent accidents, not to punish them. In a survey on 322 small and mid-sized builders employing more than 30 workers, 53.7 percent answered it was impossible to oblige with the new law. The negative response was higher at 60.7 percent at companies employing 50 to 100 people.
Given past cases, many could face criminal penalties. Labor minister An Kyung-duk vowed to lower the deaths from industrial sites to 700 this year. The target means that many could face criminal persecution. The government and the legislature could think they are done with their work but they should pay heed to complaints from companies and make realistic fixes.