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Death toll from industrial disasters rebounded in 2020: minister

Deaths from industrial accidents rebounded in South Korea last year, the labor minister said Thursday, despite the Moon Jae-in government's pledge to halve the number of workers killed in the line of duty during its term.

Minister of Employment and Labor Lee Jae-kap said industrial disasters and work-related accidents took the lives of 882 workers in 2020, marking a rise of 27 deaths from the previous year.

The number of workers killed on the job had increased from 964 in 2017 to 971 in 2018 before declining to 855 in 2019.

At the beginning of its term in May 2017, the Moon government vowed to implement measures to rid industrial sites of accidents and cut by half the annual death toll from industrial disasters averaging about 1,000 at that time.

Ministry officials said last year's upturn in the death toll was largely attributed to a fire at a logistics warehouse in Icheon, south of Seoul, in April, which claimed the lives of 38 workers.

The construction sector accounted for more than half (51.9 percent) of last year's deaths due to work-related accidents, they noted.

By type of industrial accident, falling, trapping and crushing accounted for 48.3 percent of last year's total, they added.

Complying with the government campaign against industrial disasters, the National Assembly on Jan. 8 passed a landmark bill that would increase punishment of business owners and CEOs in the event of on-duty deaths or other serious workplace disasters.

Under the new legislation, simply known as the severe disaster law, business owners or CEOs are subject to at least one year in prison or up to 1 billion won ($915,080) in fines in the event of deadly on-duty disasters caused by lax workplace safety measures.

The new law, however, exempts businesses with fewer than five workers, while giving a three-year grace period to firms with fewer than 50 employees after it goes into effect in early 2022.

The ministry said it will concentrate on strengthening its supervision over risk factors of industrial accidents at workplaces this year ahead of the enforcement of the severe disaster law.

"The government will extend full support, including for facility improvements, to help businesses make preparations for the severe disaster law, with workplaces with fewer than five employees given priority," Lee said in a news conference.

"The severe disaster law is a new starting point for protecting the lives and safety of workers and citizens. Its ultimate goal is not to punish entrepreneurs, but to fundamentally prevent serious accidents by strengthening corporate safety and health measures," the minister stressed. (Yonhap)