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The Peninsula

South Korea Confronts Dangerous Workplaces

Published March 18, 2022

South Korea’s new safety law, the Serious Disasters Punishments Act (SAPA), holds executives criminally responsible for workplace accidents that result in death due to lax safety measures. If convicted, they could face one year in prison or a fine of over USD 800,000. SAPA seeks to address the prevalence of safety noncompliance in industrial workplaces and loose enforcement until after a fatal disaster occurs. However, the new law has been criticized for being punitive rather than addressing the general lack of safety awareness and enforcement of existing workplace safety measures.

South Korea has the third-worst industrial safety record of OECD countries. President Moon vowed to tackle the issue, but around 1,000 workers still die from industrial accidents per year in South Korea. In April 2020, a fire at a construction site in Icheon left 38 workers dead. The accident was caused by the combustion of a commonly used insulation material. In a period of 3 years, 18 fatalities took place between 2 POSCO steel plants, and in January of this year, a man was killed after a fire broke out at a battery materials factory in Cheongju.

A 2016 report found that many companies try to cover up industrial accidents to avoid fines and inspection, putting the onus on workers to use their national insurance coverage for treatment. Given this backdrop, the Minister of Employment and Labor underscored that SAPA’s goal is “not to punish entrepreneurs, but to fundamentally prevent serious accidents by strengthening corporate safety and health measures.”

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Kayla Harris, David Lee, Sarah Marshall, and Mai Anna Pressley. Picture from the flickr account of worldsteel

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