The Sewol ferry tragedy has raised many issues—among the most pressing the need to reform South Korea’s workplace health-and-safety regulations.
That much has become clear amid revelations the ship that sank was perilously overloaded, that its life rafts didn't function properly, and that its crew were poorly trained in handling emergencies.
One thing I noticed working for a Korean company in the fiberboard industry--and also holding cultural lessons for employees of Korean construction companies in Australia--was the difference between the countries in their attitudes towards safety.
In Australia, workplace safety is a high-profile issue. Often companies have dedicated teams and highly qualified health-and-safety officers with large budgets for training and equipment.
The Korean company I worked for did have a safety team, and its factories featured safety messages around places like toilets. And in general, most of the relevant procedures were followed. But deficiencies in workplace safety became clear in 2013, when I accompanied an Australian staff delegation to Seoul and toured the Korean company’s factories in Incheon.
Safety officers from the Australian branch noted many small but significant violations that wouldn't be tolerated in Australia. I am referring to things like the incorrect use, or lack, of safety gear; workers without high-visibility work wear; large machinery lacking reverse-warning sirens; slippery floors without signposts; and inadequate on-site training for contractors.
Those small issues can add up to a deadly combination. According to International Labor Organization statistics on occupational fatalities, 1,292 workplace deaths in 2012 were almost six times the number recorded in Australia. Australia’s population is about half the size of Korea’s and the figures include only fatalities among people with insurance policies.
Other issues that affect workplace safety in Korea include fatigue. One of my graduate co-workers was part of the safety team and arguably worked the longest hours of the new recruits. Regularly working more than 12 hours a day and arriving hungover to work the following morning due to South Korea’s late-night drinking culture, he frequently appeared fatigued and in general bad health—boosting the chances of making a fatal mistake.
One of the most damning statements to come out of the Sewol tragedy was that the ferry company spent just 541,000 won (US$525) last year on training staff in safety procedures, according to the company’s audit report.
Thousands of dollars were spent by the Australian branch of my previous company on compliance-and-safety training for new machinery. It included regular safety training even for office staff and refresher courses to comply with Australian government and labor union guidelines. The Korean headquarters, meanwhile, saw safety training as a costly irritant to doing business.
Now is the time for Korea to place the focus back on safety at the workplace and the well-being of staff. Yes, there will be companies that can’t cope, can’t adapt, can’t afford and outright won’t commit to new health-and-safety standards. But perhaps those are the kind of companies Korea’s economy and its people can do without.
This article was originally posted on the Wall Street Journal Korea Real Time Blog which the Sawon now contributes too.