Last week, the government shifted the supervisory system from the current punishment-oriented system to preemptively preventing potential hazards through risk control in its road map for reducing construction site casualties and disasters. Such a direction already exists in developed countries with fewer industrial accidents.
This shift is based on the judgment that despite increased penalties, accidents have not decreased. The Major Accident Punishment Law came into effect on January 27, but as of October, 224 people have died in industrial accidents, 17 more than a year ago. Under tougher penalties, companies put aside superficial security measures and seek more legal advice to help employers avoid criminal penalties. Safety awareness on industrial sites has not increased significantly, nor has organizational culture changed to prioritize safety.
The safety assessment system recommended for workplaces from 2013 will gradually become mandatory from next year, according to the new roadmap. The aim is for employers and employees to work together to identify hazards and dangerous risks, pre-emptively develop measures and follow up.
Financial penalties will increase. For workplace injuries, fines based on a percentage of company sales may do more to persuade companies to spend more on safety than punishing those in charge of management. The 679 safety regulations for industrial sites will also be simplified.
But both management and labor expressed dissatisfaction with the new roadmap. Employers are unhappy that hazard assessments are mandatory instead of additional provisions that complement the Serious Accident Prevention Act. Employers have complained that while most advanced economies leave safety assessments to companies, South Korea intends to introduce punitive guidelines for violations. The labor circle believes that if the accident prevention measures rely too much on the will of the enterprise, the employer can be exempted from the responsibility of the work-related death.
Complaints from management and labor suggest that the government program is not one-sided. What matters is the validity of the security assessment. Oversight and professionalism must be improved. While hearing complaints from both sides, the roadmap should remain as it is. The business community must admit that the self-regulatory safety assessment system of the past 10 years has not helped to improve safety inspections, and the labor department should accept harsher penalties, nor has it helped reduce construction site accidents.
The desire of workers to return home safely must be respected. The Yoon Seok-yeol administration must achieve its goal of reducing serious industrial accidents to the OECD average. The government must work harder to persuade the legislature to cooperate.