971 S. Korean workers died on the job in 2018, 7 more than previous year

Posted on : 2019-05-05 19:01 KST Modified on : 2019-05-05 19:01 KST
Data shows ineffectiveness of current efforts to reduce workplace fatalities
Deaths from industrial accidents. Source: Ministry of Employment and Labor.
Deaths from industrial accidents. Source: Ministry of Employment and Labor.

According to a new report by the South Korean government, 971 workers were officially recognized as having died in workplace accidents last year, 7 more than the year before. In effect, 2.7 Koreans die in industrial accidents every day, which is far too many to erase South Korea’s reputation for being a backward country when it comes to workplace safety. Despite the enactment of the so-called Kim Yong-gyun Act, named after the tragic death of a young worker, and the government’s announcement of its goal to cut the workplace fatality rate in half by 2022, this figure shows that South Korea is still in the danger zone in regard to worker safety.

According to a report on industrial accidents in 2018, which was released by the Ministry of Employment and Labor (MOEL) on May 2, 971 workers died in work-related accidents last year, 7 more than the 964 who died in 2017. About half of those fatalities occurred in the construction industry (485), followed by the manufacturing industry (217) and the service industry (154).

The most common type of fatal accident was falls, which were responsible for 39%, or 376, of the deaths. In the construction industry in particular, 60% (290) of the deaths occurred when scaffolding collapsed, dropping workers to the ground below. Despite a social consensus on the need to reduce such fatal falls, the number of deaths by falling in the construction industry has been on the rise each year, from 256 in 2014. On Thursday, MOEL announced that, as a related measure, it was planning to provide 35.2 billion won (US$30.08 million) in funding this year to promote the spread of integrated scaffolding, which has been proven to be safe.

The government found that 1,171 workers had died from work-related diseases, 178 more than the previous year (993). But the accidental death rate per 10,000 people decreased somewhat, from 0.52 per 10,000 workers in 2017 to 0.51 last year. That resulted from a larger denominator in the equation, as the number of workers enrolled in workers’ compensation insurance increased by 513,296 during that year.

The rise in the number of fatal accidents on the job last year, MOEL contended, was affected by the inclusion of the statistics of 10 dead workers who would not have been included in the statistics previously. Workers’ compensation insurance was expanded to include small-scale construction sites, in which the construction project is worth less than 20 million won (US$17,089), in July 2018.

But in light of the overall trend, it doesn’t appear likely that the administration and ruling party will be able to keep South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s promise of reducing the number of fatal industrial accidents by 50% before the end of his presidency. During his New Year’s address this past January, Moon pledged to cut the number of deaths in industrial accidents to half their current level by 2022. In order for the 964 accident fatalities in 2017 to be reduced by half (482) by 2022, there would need to be an average decrease of 100 each year.

Current methods won’t work in reducing “outsourcing of risk”

Using current methods, labor activists agree, it won’t be easy to prevent the “outsourcing of risk” or to achieve a groundbreaking reduction in industrial accidents. Following the death of Kim Yong-gyun, a worker for a subcontractor at Taean Power Plant last year, the Occupational Safety and Health Act was completely overhauled. While providing early notice of the act’s new enforcement degree last month, the government defined the dangerous categories of work for which companies must receive prior approval from the Ministry of Employment and Labor before they can hire on-site subcontractors. But critics point out that those categories include neither the maintenance work that Kim Yong-gyun was doing when he died nor the repair work that a worker, surnamed Kim, was doing on the safety doors at Guui Station in Seoul at the time of his fatal accident in 2016.

“It will be impossible to reduce fatal accidents by half with this enforcement degree, which is subordinate to a retrograde version of the Occupational Safety and Health Act,” the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) said in a statement released on Thursday, calling for a complete revision of the enforcement decree and the establishment of measures to prevent serious industrial accidents from reoccurring.

Figures released by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2015 show that the only countries that have a higher fatal accident rate per 10,000 workers than South Korea (0.53) among members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development are Mexico (0.82) and Turkey (0.69). During the same period, Netherland had a rate of 0.05, less than one-tenth of South Korea’s rate, while Sweden and the UK had rates of 0.07 and 0.08, respectively.

By Jeon Jong-hwi, staff reporter

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