While the country is still reeling from the trauma of the Sewol ferry tragedy, manmade accidents resulting from indifference to safety continue to take place.
On Wednesday, a fire at a convalescent hospital in Jangseong, South Jeolla Province, killed 21 people, mostly elderly patients, injuring eight others. Police suspect that an 81-year-old dementia patient launched an arson attack on the hospital.
Firefighters brought the fire under control minutes after receiving a report. But the death toll was high because most of the patients in the hospital were old and had problems with mobility.
Police said the 400-bed hospital had recently undergone a safety check by officials from Jangseong County, with no safety problems found. We suspect that the inspection was perfunctory.
The disaster has brought into focus safety problems of convalescent hospitals, which are designed to take care of senior patients with chronic diseases. These hospitals have mushroomed in recent years amid a rapid increase in the elderly population.
The regulations applied to these long-term care hospitals are much softer than those for ordinary ones. But many do not follow even these soft rules to save on costs. The Jangseong hospital was no exception.
When the fire broke out, only one nurse was taking care of the 30 patients in the building, even though regulations set the appropriate number of patients per nurse at six. Had there been more nurses, the death toll could have been lower.
The latest fire in Jangseong must serve as a wake-up call. The Ministry of Health and Welfare needs to strengthen safety standards for long-term care hospitals and monitor their implementation.
Two days earlier, a fire broke out at an intercity bus terminal in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, claiming six lives and injuring 42 others. Firefighters suspect that the blaze was started by sparks from welding work at an underground food court, suggesting that welders failed to take appropriate safety measures.
These manmade accidents suggest that despite the Sewol ferry disaster, safety awareness among people has not improved much. After Sewol, there has been much talk about safety. But people apparently have not internalized safety concepts and changed their behavior.
A strong safety culture is formed when people stop just talking about safety and start to internalize safe behavior through repeated training and education. We need to make collective efforts to change our mindset and put safety first.