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[Editorial] Clarify rules

Accident punishment act to take effect; Businesses unclear on how to avoid penalty

The Severe Accident Punishment Act with a far-reaching impact on industrial sites will take effect Thursday. The act imposes punishment -- one or more years of imprisonment or a fine of up to 1 billion won ($835,000) -- on business owners or responsible executive officers for severe industrial accidents that result in death or serious injury. Heads of local governments and chief executives of public enterprises are also subject to punishment under the act.

It went through a one-year grace period and the Ministry of Employment and Labor issued a manual after making the enforcement ordinance, but complaints and calls for an amendment to the Act persist. This shows the seriousness of the problems.

First of all, it is unclear what duties managers should fulfill to be exempt from punishment.

Despite an array of preventive measures, accidents may occur if workers do not follow safety rules properly. This is especially true with unskilled, old age or migrant workers who have difficulty communicating with supervisors. It is less convincing to hold top managers at home accountable for an accident in a remote area. Chief executives may be punished excessively or unfairly. The authorities must clarify the boundary of responsibility between executives and workers as well as conditions for being exempt from penalty.

There are more than a few small and midsize companies complaining that they can hardly observe the act. According to a poll by the Korea Federation of Small and Medium Businesses, 53.7 percent of 322 surveyed manufacturers with more than 50 employees said it was impossible to comply with the law.

The act is also applicable to 243 local governments and 460 public institutions, but it is unclear about their concrete responsibilities despite a wide scope of accidents. Accidents such as derailment and flooding usually involve several agencies and private businesses. It is hard to define the scope of responsibility of those involved.

In order to deflect responsibility, heads of public institutions are reportedly trying to distance themselves from contractors as much as possible when they award them projects. Public enterprises are creating safety departments but are said to find it hard to get employees to move there because they are afraid of being the first to be punished when accidents occur.

Large companies in accident-prone industries, such as those in the construction sector where boundaries of responsibility are usually unclear between prime contractors and subcontractors, are ill at ease as well. Some builders have suspended all of their construction projects for the time being to avoid being the first to be punished.

Even as businesses continue to worry, Employment and Labor Minster An Kyung-duk said early this month that the government would not take supplementary measures.

The government says all business owners should do to be exempt from punishment is try to establish safety and health care systems of their own. Minister An said that the government will begin to work on the uncertain parts based on judicial precedents that pile up after the act is implemented. It is irresponsible to tell businesses to do their best, without clarifying what they should do.

On top of that, Minister of Justice Park Beom-kye said late last year that the ministry is considering strengthening sentencing guidelines.

The government seems to be threatening businesses to stop complaining and prevent accidents in their own way.

Few companies would oppose the intent of the act to protect workers’ lives and safety, but it is unjustifiable to punish business owners for failing to comply with rules that leave them confused about what those rules are.

Unless responsibility and penalty are clearly defined, side-effects such as hesitation in business activities and confusion at industrial sites will be unavoidable. The act may only increase punishments while failing to prevent accidents.

The government must rush to put forward supplementary measures that reflect the concerns of businesses.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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