Ensuring workplace safety – The Korea Times

Bomi Yoon

Fundamental solution needed to create safer work environment

Following a two-year grace period, the Serious Accidents Punishment Act (SAPA) came into effect on Saturday for smaller businesses. This regulation applies to companies with fewer than 50 employees, encompassing 837,000 firms and impacting approximately 8 million employees nationwide.

In the event of major on-the-job accidents including deaths, these smaller estalishments can face penalties including a minimum sentence of one year in prison or fines of up to 1 billion won ($749,000), provided they did not have the necessary health and safety measures in place. It’s noteworthy that smaller firms were initially exempt from the act when it was initially applied to larger companies in 2022.

The labor sector welcomed the broadening of the law, as workplace fatalities continue to be reported. The smaller businessess associations and the government have expressed deep regret, saying the law could lead to business closures and the firing of employees. Reports found that some restaurants or bakeries were not even aware that they would be subject to the law.

Since it went into effect in January 2022 on companies with 50 or more employees, there have been efforts to improve the law to make it more specific and move toward “self-regulation and prevention” as well as punishment. But the implementation of the law faces challenges due to ongoing partisan conflicts, government and Assembly inaction, and a significant number of smaller businesses admitting their financial incapacity to afford safety personnel and establish proper safety systems. The ruling People Power Party (PPP) and the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) attempted to pass a revised bill extending the grace period for firms with fewer than 50 employees, but their efforts were unsuccessful. Both parties are now blaming each other, accusing one another of prioritizing their traditional voter bases instead of finding a bipartisan solution.

There is a slim possibility that they may reach a belated agreement during the National Assembly plenary session on Feb. 1, even as President Yoon Suk Yeol in his meeting Monday with ruling PPP interim leader Han Dong-hoon and other party leaders called for continued negotiations after expressing strong regret last week. While buying time could offer a quick solution, it may not address the underlying issues and provide a fundamental resolution.

Ensuring workplace safety is important for the workers and for sustainable growth. According to the Ministry of Employment and Labor, there were 644 workplace deaths in 2022, a small drop over the previous year. While the 2023 figures are still not available, it is expected to drop below 600 according to reports.

The penalty in case of workplace deaths is strict, especially for the smaller firms. To alleviate concerns among smaller establishments, the labor ministry has been releasing figures and information aimed at calming any sense of panic or apprehension. It recently announced that since SAPA went into effect two years ago for firms with 50 or more employees, 510 violations were found with 33 indictments made by the prosecution at the end of last year. Additionally, the labor ministry reported that within the businesses employing five to 49 individuals, the deaths within the restaurant and accommodations sector accounted for less than 1 percent, totaling five out of 644 workplace fatalities in 2022.

The figures, however, underscore the fact that workers across the nation are still exposed to accidents at the workplace. It is imperative that we exert our utmost efforts to prevent such incidents, as they can wreak havoc on families and individuals.

After Yoon ordered related ministries to “minimize the confusion and side effects for businesses and to come up with necessary assistance for those smaller firms requiring it,” the labor ministry pledged to offer customized consulting, training, and financial assistance in safety. Over the next three months, the ministry plans to assess all 837,000 smaller business establishments to better tailor its support.

Within this time frame, the government should work to provide detailed guidelines for different business types regarding SAPA, and make sure it has enough experts to assist the firms in training and installing safety systems.



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