Irregular worker at Taean Power Plant dies from machinery accident

Posted on : 2018-12-12 17:10 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
24-year-old Kim Yong-gyun was working nightshift alone
 a colleague of the late Kim Yong-gyun
a colleague of the late Kim Yong-gyun

The 24-year-old man liked listening to the songs of K-pop boy band BTS. He would sing to blow off stress. He had a healthy appetite, but his favorite food was fried chicken. People said he “got along well with others” and was “full of passion.”

After graduating from a vocational school and completing his military service, this young man was hired on Sept. 17 as a contract worker by Korea Engineering and Power Services, a facility management subcontractor at Taean Power Station, which is operated by Korea Western Power.

This was the young man’s first job, and the company promised to make him a regular worker after one year on the job. He had recently told his family that the job was difficult, but that he could handle it because he was still in the learning phase.

This young man, named Kim Yong-gyun, died when he was caught in machinery during the night shift on Dec. 10. He had been inspecting the coal conveyor belt at the 04C zone at the transformer tower for units No. 9 and No. 10 at the Taean Power Station, located at Wonbok Township, Taean County, South Chungcheong Province.

Kim’s body was found at 3:20 am by a coworker surnamed Lee (62 years old). “Kim had been put on the night shift yesterday. When he didn’t answer the phone, I went looking for him and found his body mangled in the machinery,” Lee told the police.

Kim’s job was to make the rounds in the power station, a route running 4 or 5km, from 6 pm on Dec. 10 until 7:30 am on Dec. 11. Kim spoke with Lee on the phone at 10:21 pm, and a security camera spotted him walking near the scene of the accident 14 minutes later. That was the last anyone saw of him. His dead body was found stuck in the machinery some four hours later.

Kim and 11 coworkers were working on a four-team, two-shift system at the coal plant, which runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Under this system, workers do one day shift and one night shift before getting two days off. The day shift runs for 11 hours, from 7:30 am until 6:30 pm, and the night shift for 13 hours, from 6:30 pm to 7:30 am. There are no breaks during work hours.

The outsourcing of risk and death

Kim’s tragic death was announced during a press conference held on the 19th floor of the Press Center, in downtown Seoul, at 11 am on Tuesday. The press conference had been called by irregular workers who want to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. It was organized by a group called Stop Using Irregular Workers! Joint Action for 11 Million Irregular Workers, which arranged four days of events starting on Nov. 12 in front of the Blue House, the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office and the National Assembly to demand a resolution to the issue of irregular workers.

Lee Tae-seong, an irregular worker at the power plant, described himself as “a worker who has been producing electricity for the past 20 years.”

“Today, I lost a coworker,” Lee said while tearfully sharing the news of Kim’s death during the press conference. “This 24-year-old young man got stuck in the coal conveyer belt and was decapitated.”

“During the parliamentary audit on Oct. 18, we said that workers don’t have to be given regular status as long as they don’t have to die anymore. And now today I’ve lost another coworker. Please don’t let anyone else die. The way forward is to stop the outsourcing of danger and the outsourcing of death,” Lee said.

When workers described Kim’s horrible death – along with the fact that his body was left in the conveyor belt for so long – the press conference was filled with the sounds of sobbing. A tragic irony was that, two months ago, Kim had taken photos holding two placards when he applied to attend this very press conference. One of the placards said, “President Moon Jae-in, I’d like you to meet with us irregular workers. We need to get rid of the unfair labor laws, punish those responsible for illegal dispatches and give irregular workers regular status by hiring them directly.” The other placard said, “My name is Kim Yong-gyun, and I’m an irregular worker who operates the coal equipment at a coal plant.”

Irregular worker Lee Tae-seong
Irregular worker Lee Tae-seong

Subcontractor bid too low for employees to work in pairs

Kim’s colleagues were sure that the cause of Kim’s death was the fact that, just as at most workplaces in Korea, Korea Western Power had given the job to a subcontractor that bid too low to allow their employees to work in pairs. On Tuesday, the Korea Engineering and Power Services chapter of the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union, a member of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, released information about major accidents and fatalities at subcontractors for the Taean Power Station. According to the union chapter, a total of 12 workers under subcontractors at the power station have lost their lives during the eight years since 2010 in accidents such as falls, burials, hammer blows, crane crashes, and machinery mishaps such as Kim’s. There have also been 19 people injured.

“The conveyor belt is so powerful that sometimes people are sucked into the machinery. When you work in pairs, the other person can pull a cord to activate a safety switch that stops the conveyor belt. The problem was that they only had one person doing the rounds,” said an individual surnamed Han, 26, who had worked with Kim.

The police and the labor authorities have ordered the company to suspend its operations and are investigating why Kim was working by himself. But company representatives have reportedly told the police that their work regulations don’t require that the work be done by teams of two.

“During an overhaul [planned repairs that take place while the power station is shut down], workers stay in pairs. But during normal operations, they do their rounds alone. We didn’t make this system, but it’s the one used by [the subcontractor] Korea Engineering and Power Services,” a spokesperson for Korean Western Power said in a telephone call with the Hankyoreh.

“Though there are 12 people working on each shift, when machine operators and others are accounted for, there are only six people actually on the ground. That’s apparently why they regularly had people working alone. We’re planning to look into exactly how the accident occurred and determine whether any laws were broken,” said a spokesperson for the police.

By Jung Hwan-bong, Seon Dam-eun, and Choi Ha-yan, staff reporters, and Song In-geol, Daejeon correspondent

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