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The Peninsula

Is South Korea a Safe Place to Work?

Published January 22, 2015
Author: Mark Tokola
Category: South Korea

By Mark Tokola

On Wednesday, January 21, four Korean workers were crushed to death at the Geochung Shipbuilding Company in Busan when the operator’s cabin broke away from a 40-ton crane.  A police officer told the press, “It appears that they were trying to disconnect the cabin without proper safety equipment.”  The police will now interview witnesses to determine whether required safety procedures were followed.  Since the April 16, 2014, Sewol ferry disaster in which 294 people died, national attention in South Korea has been focused on health and safety regulations, and on how well they are being enforced.  The January 21 shipyard accident will draw further attention to the specific issue of safety in the workplace.

In 2013, according to Korean government statistics, 1,929 South Koreans died from workplace-related injuries or diseases, an average of 37 every week.  The largest number of worksite deaths was on construction sites, followed closely by manufacturing.  Before 2007, the leading cause of death was becoming entangled in equipment.  Since then, most deaths have been from falling from heights.  The total number of workplace deaths in South Korea is striking in isolation, but it begs two questions:  How does that compare with other countries?  Are South Korea’s workplaces becoming more dangerous or safer?  Neither question is as easy to answer as one might think although there is one indisputable fact: South Korea is a significantly safer place to work than it was 15 years ago.  In 2000, there were around 26 deaths for every 100,000 workers; in 2012, that number had fallen to 12.

In looking at workplace safety, it is easier to compare fatalities than to compare injuries – both over time and between countries.  “Injuries” are a matter of definition: in Korea, statistics are based on the number of cases receiving medical attention and compensation, in the European Union they are based on lost work days.  Moreover, statistics are unreliable because companies are reluctant to report workplace injuries.  One Korean academic study estimated that workplace injuries are under-reported by a factor of nine because companies prefer to directly cover their workers’ medical expenses rather than formally applying for workplace injury compensation.  Deaths, by contrast, are incontrovertible facts.

Even at that, comparing the number of workplace fatalities is less than a clear cut exercise.  Some occupations are more dangerous than others: forestry, mining, and agriculture are more dangerous than manufacturing or services.  A country that does more of the former and less of the latter is likely to having a higher fatality rate among workers.  As economies mature and more workers become involved in services rather than agriculture, the national workplace death rate will fall as a result.  Even the shifting demographics of the workforce matter.  In general, workers over 45 years old have a better safety record than those under 25 (the reasons for that are debated).

There is no standard international methodology for keeping workplace safety statistics.  Countries differ on whether they count commuting accidents or sports-related accidents as workplace deaths or injuries.  In Europe, an injury on the workplace that eventually proves fatal is not counted as an occupational fatality if the death occurs more than a year after the injury.  In Korea, there is no such “statute of limitations.”  No matter how long after the injury death occurs, it is still counted as a workplace fatality.  Another factor that disadvantages Korea when it comes to comparing statistics is that the numbers are invariably based on a head count of workers (injuries/deaths per 100,000) rather than on hours worked.  Koreans workers famously work longer hours than those in other countries.  If statistics were based on injuries/deaths per hours worked rather than on raw number of workers, Korea would appear a safer place to work.

Nevertheless, even with all of those statistical uncertainties and caveats, South Korea still appears to have a problem with occupational safety that needs to be further addressed.  The most recent academic study that made a determined effort to compare safety records between nations while taking into account the differences in work force composition was done by the Tampere University of Technology (Finland), Institute of Occupational Safety Engineering in 2005, using accident rates from 1998.  South Korea’s safety record has improved considerably since then, but the researchers concluded that comparable fatality rates in 1998 were: United Kingdom, 0.8; Netherlands, 1.5; Finland, 2.9; France, 3.0; Japan, 3.2; Germany, 3.6; U.S., 5.2; and Korea, 15.7.

More recent partial efforts to adjust data to make accurate comparisons possible estimated that Korea’s workplace fatality rate in 2008 was 7.3 compared to the estimate for the U.S. of 3.1 and the EU average of 2.8.  If true, this would show that Korea has narrowed the gap with other advanced economies since 1998, but still has considerable room for improvement.  The Tampere study also showed that there is no economic advantage to spending less on safety.  The costs of injuries and deaths were far greater for businesses in any part of the world than what they would have spent on safety equipment and safe practices.  The authors concluded that the idea that safety is something that should wait until a later stage of economic development is wrong.

So, Korea has made demonstrable progress, starting with a workplace fatality rate (using its own government statistics) of 26.0 in 2000 and lowering the rate to 13.8 in 2009.  Since 2009, however, progress in lowering the rate further has slowed, reaching 12.0 in 2012, and then showing the first increase in a decade between 2012 and 2013, when the fatality rate crept back up to 12.5.

The Korean government is aware of the issue and in the Ministry of Labor’s “2013 Employment and Labor Policy” report described new programs to step up inspections of construction sites, place special emphasis on decreasing risks at chemical plants, require employers in selected industries to establish safety and health plans, and to provide special support programs to new small and medium enterprises.  The public and media’s continuing interest in safety and health issues will encourage the government to do even more.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from the Kurt Johnson’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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