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Jun 24, 2024, 12:40pm EDT
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Semafor Signals

Deadly fire at lithium battery plant in South Korea renews worries about workplace safety

Insights from Reuters, Financial Times, The New York Times, and Associated Press

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A firefighter on the site of the fire in Hwaseong, South Korea.
Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters
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The News

A fire at a lithium battery plant near South Korea’s capital Seoul killed 22 people, most of them migrant workers from China.

It is one of the country’s deadliest workplace blazes in recent years, though South Korea has long struggled with industrial accidents.

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SIGNALS

Semafor Signals: Global insights on today's biggest stories.

Lithium batteries pose special danger

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Sources:  
Reuters, BBC

South Korea is home to some of the world’s major producers of lithium-ion batteries, components that power electric vehicles and pose a particular fire risk. “Battery materials such as nickel are easily flammable,” a professor told Reuters. “So often, there is not enough time to respond, compared to a fire caused by other materials.” Lithium-battery production also involves toxic chemicals, which are more likely to have caused the death of the workers than the fire itself, another expert said. Firefighters in the incident had to rely on dry sand rather than water to extinguish the fire, as lithium can react strongly to water, a process that took longer than anticipated, the BBC wrote.

Workplace safety in South Korea remains low despite efforts

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Sources:  
Financial Times, Korea Economic Institute of America

South Korea remains one of the countries with the highest industrial death rates in the world, the Financial Times wrote, with over 600 reported fatal incidents in 2023. Leading companies like Samsung and Hyundai have faced disputes over their health and safety measures. The government has made efforts to improve safety, with the passing of a law in 2021 that holds company executives accountable for deaths caused by lax enforcement of safety rules, leading to potential fines that could reach $800,000 or imprisonment for up to a year.

South Korea increasingly relies on migrant labor

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Sources:  
Associated Press, The New York Times

South Korea has become a top destination for job-seeking Chinese nationals in the past few decades, the Associated Press wrote, who often take up physically demanding and low-paying jobs in factories that South Koreans avoid. Low birth rates in the country have led some industrial sectors to become increasingly reliant on the migrant workforce to fill jobs, and many factories such as the one in Monday’s blaze would not be able to function without them, The New York Times wrote. One fifth of the half a million foreigners that traveled to South Korea on temporary work visas in 2023 were from China, according to government data.

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