The Seoul Central District Court ruled this week that Hankook Tire was partially responsible for the death of a factory worker surnamed Ahn who died of lung cancer caused by toxic chemicals in 2015.
This marks the first ruling that holds the local tiremaker responsible for the death of its factory worker.
The company is South Korea’s largest tiremaker and No. 7 by sales globally.
The verdict ordered Hankook Tire to compensate the plaintiffs -- the worker’s wife and three children -- a total of 128 million won ($111,890). The family had sued Hankook Tire for violating its duty to protect workers, calling on the company to improve its working environment to prevent further accidents.
“Hankook Tire distributed masks and installed exhaust and cooling systems as it was aware of the correlation between tire production and carcinogenesis. But research results show that the safety systems did not work properly,” the verdict said.
The verdict added that it could be said that exposure to vapor made while steaming rubber in the process of tire production had caused lung cancer if there are no other medical explanations for the illness.
There had been speculations that the continued deaths of factory workers at Hankook Tire since 1998 were due to a lack of safety devices to filter out toxic chemicals at the factory.
A total of 46 workers at Hankook Tire died between 2008 and January 2016, according to a report by the Ministry of Employment and Labor.
The death toll stands at 108 people from 1996 until 2007, according to a group of people who had lost their family members working at Hankook Tire factories. They added the figure was recently pushed up by eight.
Workers who died from the exposure to toxic materials, however, were not recognized as workplace deaths due to a lack of proof between their cause of death and volatile organic solvents.
“Under Korean law, factories that produce volatile organic solvents and other carcinogens must be equipped with ventilations systems and workers should be provided with safety equipment. So if the safety systems were not working, Hankook Tire is partially responsible,” said Lee Deok-hwan, a professor of chemistry at Sogang University.
The verdict also held workers partially responsible for the workplace death, as workers have a duty to take charge of their safety.
Ahn joined the company in December 1993 and had worked on the production line for 15 years and eight months before being diagnosed of lung cancer caused by noxious compounds in September 2009. He died in January 2015.
With President Moon Jae-in in office, investigation into the death of Hankook Tire workers is expected to speed up as he had promised on the campaign trail.
“We will take a thorough look at the final ruling, which we are expected to receive next week,” said a spokesperson of Hankook Tire.
By Kim Bo-gyung (email@example.com)