Following the Sewol ferry tragedy, workplace safety has become a buzzword among Korean CEOs. Top officials of major corporations are visiting accident-prone workplaces to check safety systems and urge employees to put safety first.
For instance, Chung Mong-Koo, chairman of Hyundai Motor Group, recently visited Hyundai Steel’s plant in Dangjin, South Chungcheong Province, a workplace that has been plagued by accidents.
In May last year, five workers died while working on a furnace at the steel plant. The disaster followed the deaths of five other workers at the plant from September 2012.
During the unannounced visit, Chung urged company officials to make safety a top priority, calling it the foundation of happy families and a healthy society.
Chung was not alone in visiting workplaces for safety checks. Shin Dong-bin, chairman of Lotte Group, visited the construction site for the Lotte World Tower in Jamsil, southern Seoul.
Lotte is building a 123-story hotel at the site. When completed in 2016, it will be the tallest building in Korea. But the project has been marred by frequent accidents, with the most recent one taking place last month with the death of a worker.
Some corporations have decided to expand investment in safety. Hyundai Heavy Industries announced Wednesday a plan to invest 300 billion won in enhancing its safety system. The decision was prompted by the deaths of eight workers in the past two months.
Hyundai Steel has also increased its safety budget for this year to 500 billion won, more than four times higher than last year’s 120 billion won.
The enhanced safety awareness among Korean companies is welcome, given Korea’s poor industrial safety record. Although Korea is regarded as an advanced economy, it is a third-world country when viewed in terms of workplace safety.
Last year alone, a total of 1,929 workers were killed in industrial accidents in Korea, an average of 5.3 workers per day ― the highest rate among the OCED countries. The figure represented an increase of 65 from the previous year.
Monetary losses due to industrial accidents were estimated at 19.2 trillion won in 2012. To earn a profit of that magnitude, the nation has to export some 1.4 million cars. The amount is also 5.3 times the annual losses incurred by labor strife.
Industrial accidents occur because companies do not follow safety regulations. For instance, in a recent inspection of Hyundai Heavy Industries, the Ministry of Employment and Labor found more than 500 breaches of safety regulations.
Last July, the ministry discovered more than 1,000 breaches of safety regulations at Hyundai Steel. The large number of violations implies that the steel mill had not bothered to observe safety regulations at all.
One reason for the gross disregard for safety rules is that the punishments meted out for violations are too soft. For instance, the ministry only imposed penalties of 1 billion won on Hyundai Heavy and 670 million won on Hyundai Steel.
Penalties of that magnitude are nothing more than a slap on the wrist for large corporations. Under the current law, business owners are rarely sentenced to jail for fatal workplace accidents.
It is definitely encouraging that major Korean corporations are getting more serious about improving safety. But many companies still cut corners on safety to save on costs. For them, toughening punishments for safety breaches is the right solution.