Fatal industrial accidents are risingAn explosion early morning on Friday at Posco’s steel factory in Pohang injured five workers from a maintence and inspection company while the employees were conducting regular maintenance work. The Posco employee in charge of safety supervision at the plant was absent that day.
A day before the Posco accident, three workers suffocated at SK Chemicals’ factory in Ulsan while washing and coating chemical-holding tanks at the plant. On the same day, one person was killed and four were injured in a boiler explosion at Foosung, a refractories producer.
Despite demands for better safety regulations since the Sewol ferry disaster, numerous industrial accidents have occurred. Last year, 1,929 people died in industrial accidents; an average of 5.3 deaths per day. The number has been increasing since 2011 after years of decline.
According to the Ministry of Employment and Labor, Korea’s accidental death rate per 10,000 people was 0.73 in 2012; three times higher than that of Germany in 2008 at 0.18 or Japan’s rate of 0.22 in 2010.
The annual monetary loss from industrial disasters was 19.2 trillion won (18.8 billion) in 2012, roughly the same as the profit to be made by exporting 1.4 million cars.
“The recent industrial disasters that occurred within the past two to three years are unfortunately similar,” according to Lee Young-sup and Kim Chan-oh, professors at Seoul National University of Science and Technology.
Multiple industrial accidents at the same workplace have been identified as a major problem.
Accidents at Hyundai Heavy Industries and its subsidiaries have killed eight people in the past two months. Posco had two fatal accidents last year: one from a fire and one from a gas leak. About 10 workers have died at Hyundai’s steel plant in Dangjin since 2012.
“Most of the accidents at steel manufacturers occurred while they were replacing old facilities. We are now suffering the aftermath of poor maintenance and cost cutting in the past since the foreign exchange crises,” Kim said.
Most of the victims worked for a subcontractor of a larger company.
“This is because large firms entrust subcontractors with safety and security tasks. But subcontractors are more concerned about cutting costs than supervising the workplace. Of course, the system is vulnerable to accidents,” said Lee.
Roughly half of the steel workers at Hyundai’s Dangjin plant work for a subcontractor and are placed in risky working environments, such as transportation or maintenance.
Concealment of accidents, late reporting and poor aftercare workers is common.
After two employees of a plastics manufacturer died while building a hotel last year, the company didn’t take any measures to compensate their families or improve safety standards. The company said it would investigate the incident and publicize details to prevent further accidents, but so far, it has not.
Affiliates of foreign firms have the opposite track record. DuPont, an American chemical company, requires all of its employees to have a “DuPont license,” which requires them to drive defensively.
And every accident that has happened at DuPont must be shared within the company. “It seems strict, but security is the most important value in management,” said the president of DuPont Korea, Lim Jung-tak.
Lee, the professor, said it is time for Korean conglomerates to change.
“Large companies have only appreciated the value of fast completion and overachievement at industrial sites,” he said. “But now, the priority should be on introducing safety guidelines and consolidating safety education.”
BY LEE SANG-JAI AND KIM HAE-YOON [firstname.lastname@example.org]