Jeong Seung-ki began looking into the safety record of a Hankook Tire plant… (John M. Glionna / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Daejeon, South Korea — Jeong Seung-ki says he knew something was dangerously wrong with the working environment at the Hankook Tire plant here.
After a colleague died in an industrial accident in 2004, the 48-year-old product inspector distributed black ribbons in the man's honor. A boss took him aside, he said, demanding an explanation.
For Jeong, the message was clear: This was a busy factory floor, not a memorial chapel.
"The company culture was really strange," he said. "Something wasn't right."
Jeong began monitoring the plant's safety record and soon discovered a troubling trend. Over 16 months, 13 plant employees died of illnesses, including heart ailments and cancer, that he believed were connected to their workplace.
One by one, he attended colleagues' funerals, collecting medical records from families.
Sympathetic employees also helped him amass confidential company safety data, he said.
Then in 2006, Jeong blew the whistle on Hankook, alleging that company officials knowingly ignored dangerous working conditions at its three plants and research facilities, which employ 6,100 workers.
The disclosure led to a government investigation, which concluded that five employee deaths between 1996 and 2007 were connected to Hankook's factory conditions and its inflexible corporate culture.
Last year, five Hankook officials were found guilty of failing to prevent work-related deaths. In issuing his opinion, the judge said the defendants' "wrongdoing was not minor." Two company officials received suspended sentences, and all five were fined.
Hankook officials have appealed the judge's ruling.
"The safety and health of our employees is a top priority," said Cho Yong-jin, a Hankook public relations officer. "We feel a social responsibility to make our workplace safe."
During hearings in the National Assembly, lawmakers suggested that Hankook received preferential treatment through connections to President Lee Myung-bak. One Hankook official is the son-in-law of the South Korean president, whose son also worked at the firm as an intern.
Public health experts say the case highlights dangers in South Korean workplaces: Koreans face some of the longest working hours in the developed world. And the death rate from industrial accidents is far higher than in other advanced nations, such as Japan, the U.S., Germany and Britain, studies show.
After his disclosure, Jeong said, he was demoted. Company officials also posted a large sign at the plant's main gate specifically forbidding him to picket or hand out fliers.
Still, he continued to agitate, insisting that Hankook never took responsibility for the deaths. He was fired by the company this month, he said, for his comments about Hankook.
"Because I spoke out," he said, "I have been singled out."
Many experts believe that South Korea's rapid industrial rise has come at a steep price: reduced workplace safety.
A 2009 study by the Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency, or KOSHA, showed that the nation's death rate from industrial accidents in 2007 was significantly higher than those of other developed nations.
At 1.1 deaths per 10,000 workers, the fatality rate was more than double the U.S. rate of 0.48 deaths and four times higher than Japan's.
Korea was also the only country in the 30-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in which employees worked more than 2,000 hours a year, a third more than the average U.S. worker. It was not until 2004 that national law abolished the six-day workweek here.
News of industrial accidents has become commonplace. Two years ago, 40 workers died when they were trapped in a cold-storage warehouse that filled with toxic fumes after an explosion.
"Generally, the higher a nation's competitive power, the lower its death rate from industrial accidents. However, South Korea is an exceptional case," said Paek Do-myung, a public health expert at Seoul National University. "Companies here are not doing well in man- aging the health of employees."
After Jeong's disclosures, KOSHA reviewed the deaths of 14 of the 90 Hankook workers who died between 1996 and 2007 and found that workplace environmental factors probably had played a role in five.
The fatalities -- three cardiovascular-related and two from cancer -- were attributed to irregular and long shifts that in a few cases required employees to remain on the job for 24 hours straight. Poor factory ventilation was also cited.
KOSHA said workers with underlying health conditions were probably made ill by prolonged exposure to temperatures that often reached 104 degrees on the factory floor.
"We found an inflexible corporate culture that focused on the production of their product, not on the health of their employees," said Kim Eun-a, a KOSHA official who headed the investigation. "They're a large company, and they have a responsibility for the health of their workers that goes beyond the legal system."