S.Korea battery maker apologises for deadly fire but says it complied with safety rules


  • World
  • Tuesday, 25 Jun 2024

Emergency personnel work at the site of a deadly fire at a lithium battery factory owned by South Korean battery maker Aricell, in Hwaseong, South Korea, June 24, 2024. REUTERS/Kim Hong-ji

HWASEONG, South Korea (Reuters) -The CEO of a South Korean lithium battery manufacturer apologised on Tuesday following a massive factory fire that killed 23 workers, but said the company had complied with all required safety precautions and training.

The fire on Monday, which began at a factory with 35,000 lithium batteries, produced thick smoke that spread quickly and the workers inside the second-floor location likely lost consciousness and succumbed within seconds, fire officials said.

Firefighters with search dogs combed the gutted structure on Tuesday in Hwaseong, an industrial cluster southwest of the capital Seoul, and found the last person who had been unaccounted for, raising the death toll to 23.

Seventeen of those who died were Chinese, and one was Laotian. The rest were South Koreans.

Most of them were temporary workers at the plant which is run by South Korea-based Aricell, majority-owned by S-Connect.

Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in South Korea are at risk from accidents like the factory fire, as they make up a large portion of the workforce but face a greater risk of injury or death.

Aricell CEO Park Soon-kwan offered condolences to the workers who were killed and apologised to everyone who had been affected by the accident.

"We will be conscientiously taking part in the investigation by authorities and will do our best to determine the cause of the accident and to take measures to prevent a repeat of such an accident," Park told reporters at the scene of the fire.

Officials from agencies including the National Forensic Service, police and the fire department entered the factory as part of a joint investigation.

The fire was the latest industrial accident in a country where dozens of manufacturing workers lose their lives on the job each year despite repeated calls to improve workplace safety.

"I ask the ministries of labour and industry and the National Fire Agency to conduct an urgent safety inspection and, where there is concern of an accident, take immediate measures," Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said at a cabinet meeting.

Park, the Aricell CEO, said the company had fully complied with safety procedures and training, but more than half of the 103 workers at the factory, including some of those killed, were contract workers dispatched by a manpower company.

Established in 2020, Aricell makes lithium primary batteries for sensors and radio communication devices. It has 48 full-time employees, according to its latest regulatory filing and its LinkedIn profile.

Its parent S-Connect supplies lithium-ion battery parts to Samsung SDI, one of the country's major secondary battery makers, according to S-Connect's website.

Regulatory filings showed Aricell recorded a 2.6 billion won ($1.9 million) operating loss last year on 4.8 billion won revenue, and a 14% increase in accumulated debt to 23.8 billion won. It has recorded net losses every year since its founding.

Shares of S-Connect, registered on the junior Kosdaq index, were trading 1.37% lower on Tuesday after plunging 22.5% on Monday following the news of the fire.

A labour ministry official told Reuters it was investigating whether Aricell complied with safety regulations and gave adequate safety training for temporary foreign workers.

Violations of those regulations are subject to criminal prosecution, the official said, requesting anonymity.

When the fire started, sparks burst and white smoke rose, followed by several explosions from piles of batteries, according to a video footage of the inside of the factory, shown on local media.

The workers tried to contain the flame with extinguishers but failed, and the factory room was soon engulfed in smoke, the video showed.

Reuters could not independently confirm the authenticity of the video.

Many of the bodies remain unidentified.

Reuters journalists saw some wailing family members trying to enter the site, which had been cordoned off.

($1 = 1,386.2000 won)

(Reporting by Hyunsu Yim, Daewoung Kim, Dogyun Kim in Hwaseong, Ju-min Park, Heekyong Yang in Seoul; Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Stephen Coates, Jamie Freed and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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