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3 serious accidents in SMEs reported a week after law expansion

By Lee Jaeeun

Published : Feb. 4, 2024 - 14:57

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Lee Sung-hee, vice minister of Employment and Labor, visits and inspects the site where a fatal accident occurred at a small pipe manufacturing plant in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province, Friday. (The Ministry of Employment and Labor) Lee Sung-hee, vice minister of Employment and Labor, visits and inspects the site where a fatal accident occurred at a small pipe manufacturing plant in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province, Friday. (The Ministry of Employment and Labor)

Three serious accidents were reported by enterprises with fewer than 50 employees in the first week since the enforcement of workplace safety laws was expanded, South Korea's Ministry of Employment and Labor said Sunday.

The ministry reported deaths at work at SMEs in Busan, Gangwon Province and Gyeonggi Province since the laws subjecting employers to penalties for fatal accidents were expanded to smaller businesses on Jan. 27.

For instance, a male worker in his 50s died after being crushed by an 800-kilogram pipe at a pipe manufacturing plant with 25 employees in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province, Thursday.

The Labor Ministry deployed inspectors to investigate the cause of the accident and to assess whether any violations of safety regulations had occurred.

If any wrongdoing is detected on the part of the company, the employer faces the possibility of at least one year in prison or fines of up to 1 billion won ($747,000) under the Serious Accidents Punishment Act.

There have been more serious accidents at workplaces with fewer than 50 employees than at larger companies.

Of the 459 deaths due to inadequate safety measures in the first three quarters of last year, 267, or 58.2 percent, occurred at workplaces with fewer than 50 employees, according to data released by the Labor Ministry last November.

But according to a survey conducted by the Korea Enterprises Federation and released in December, 94 percent of 1,053 businesses with fewer than 50 employees said that they were not ready to meet the stricter legal requirements. Many also reported that they are facing financial difficulties due to high interest rates and a slowing economy.

Some critics highlight that the issue cannot be solved simply by increasing penalties.

“As the law has expanded to apply to small and medium-sized businesses with 50 employees or less, the government should raise awareness through strict application, but at the same time actively guide and support them to improve their safety systems,” Lee Jong-sun, deputy director of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at Korea University, told Yonhap News Agency.

As the number of investigation targets grows, there is also an urgent need for immediate manpower acquisition.

In late January, Labor Minister Lee Jung-Sik said the ministry would make efforts to supply an ample number of inspectors, in light of the anticipated surge in investigations, expected to rise by around 2.4 times due to the expanded application of workplace safety laws.