A South Korean court has indicted 18 senior Hyundai Heavy Industries officials for violating industrial safety law after five fatalities at the shipyard.

Those charged include former chief executive Han Young-seuk.

South Korean media reported that Ulsan District Prosecutors’ Office said the 17 others indicted were former and current heads of the company’s business teams, as well as representatives and managers of three subcontractors.

One worker died at HHI’s Ulsan shipyard in 2019. The number of deaths rose to four last year.

A subcontractor died in February 2020 after falling 21 metres. Two workers died in separate accidents on 16 and 21 April.

In May 2020, a 34-year-old subcontractor died after being found unconscious. He had been working on welding operations on an LNG carrier at the yard.

News reports said the Ministry of Employment & Labor conducted regular and special safety inspections at HHI between September 2019 and July 2020, and found 653 cases in which the company failed to take appropriate safety measures.

Following the string of fatalities, HHI promoted Lee Sang-kyun to a new upgraded chief executive position. The former HHI head, vice president Ha Soo, voluntarily resigned.

Kwon Oh-gap, chairman at parent company Hyundai Heavy Industries Holdings, apologised publicly for concern caused by accidents at the yard.

"As the number of safety accidents ... have increased suddenly this year, we need to re-examine them at a fundamental level to see if the existing safety measures are losing their effectiveness,” he said.

South Korea has toughened its law on industrial safety.

One commentator highlighted a recent fatality at another of the country's big three shipbuilders, which he said may leave yard managers facing legal questions.

The Severe Industrial Accident Law aims to prevent major workplace accidents by holding business owners and managers responsible.

Where there is a fatality, a company and managers can face imprisonment of at least one year or a criminal fine of up to KRW 4bn ($3.6m). This rises for repeat offences.

TradeWinds has attempted to contact HHI for comment.