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HDC could avoid workplace disaster law despite construction accident

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Seen is the partially collapsed apartment building at HDC's construction site in Gwangju, Wednesday. Yonhap
Seen is the partially collapsed apartment building at HDC's construction site in Gwangju, Wednesday. Yonhap

By Baek Byung-yeul

Seven months after a building collapse incident that killed nine people at HDC Hyundai Development Company's redevelopment project in Gwangju, the company is embroiled in another collapse accident in the southwestern city.

On Tuesday, the exterior walls of a high-rise building under construction collapsed at the company's apartment complex construction site in the southwestern city. Following the accident, six construction workers are still missing as of 5 p.m., Wednesday.

Due to safety concerns, Gwangju City Government ordered HDC temporarily to suspend every construction project underway in the city, Wednesday.

"We've decided to order the suspension of construction at all of HDC's construction sites in Gwangju. We will cooperate with the land ministry and police to investigate the cause of the accident and strictly hold the company accountable for all legal and administrative responsibilities," Park Nam-eon, the head of the city's disaster and safety countermeasures office, said in a media briefing.

Both accidents occurred on the sites of HDC development projects, but the industry view is that it will be difficult to hold the company legally responsible under the newly established Severe Disaster Act that imposes legal responsibility on the CEO or owner of a company that caused accidents at industrial sites.

This difficulty is because lawmakers decided to allow a one-year grace period and the law will only take effect on Jan. 27. The National Assembly passed the law in early 2021, aiming to increase the level of accountability for business owners to prevent workplace fatalities caused by a lack of safety measures.

Under the new law, business owners and CEOs can be imprisoned for over one year or fined up to 1 billion won ($839,984) for industrial accidents caused by poor workplace safety measures.

Even if the Severe Disaster Act can be applied to Tuesday's collapse, it remains to be seen whether HDC's CEO or owner can be held legally responsible, because the law is designed to place legal responsibility on the entity that carries out construction, not the company that places the construction order.

Due to imperfections in this newly created law, labor unions argue that the Severe Disaster Act needs to be revised.

"As seen in the Hak-dong disaster, HDC, which has the largest and heaviest responsibility, was withdrawn and only its subcontractors were arrested," the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions' Gwangju branch said in a statement. Hak-dong is where a building under demolition collapsed in the city last year, killing nine.

The union further said that "the Severe Disaster Act should be revised immediately to allow punishment of the company that orders construction."

HDC CEO Yoo Byeong-gyu bows his heads after giving an apology near the construction accident site in Gwangju, Wednesday. Yonhap
HDC CEO Yoo Byeong-gyu bows his heads after giving an apology near the construction accident site in Gwangju, Wednesday. Yonhap

Tuesday's collapse occurred at the construction site in Hwajeong-dong, as outer walls of the 23rd to 34th floors broke off from the 39-story building at 3:46 p.m.

At that time, 394 workers were at the scene and three were rescued. The six missing workers were presumed to be working between the 28th and 34th floors. The Gwangju City Government said it will continue searching for the missing workers.

With the suspension order, apartment complex construction projects that are capable of accommodating around 9,000 households have all been halted. Including the collapse-hit construction site in Hwajeong area, HDC has been constructing five apartment complexes in the city.

HDC CEO Yoo Byeong-gyu held a press conference near the accident site, Wednesday, saying, "We deeply apologize to the missing, their families and the citizens of Gwangju who suffered from the unfortunate accident that occurred at the construction site."


Baek Byung-yeul baekby@koreatimes.co.kr


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