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Workplace safety: The next frontier

The record on work safety is mixed. After rapid progress from 2004 to 2014, the numbers slipped in 2015 and 2016, although they improved in the first half of this year. What's needed for Singapore to scale the next level of the worker-safety bar?

The year 2004 was a pivotal one for workers' safety in Singapore. That was the year the Nicoll Highway collapsed on April 20, killing four workers and injuring three others.

Just nine days later, the collapse of a steel structure at the Fusionopolis worksite on April 29 killed two workers and injured 29 others. A month later, a fire on board the ship Almudaina on May 29 at the Keppel Shipyard killed seven workers and injured three.

These three accidents triggered a round of soul-searching.

It also led to sweeping changes in workplace safety.

Workplace safety numbers improved dramatically after that, from 2004 to 2014. But they started dipping in 2015 and last year, although the first six months of this year have seen lower rates of accidents and deaths than last year.

One recent accident has put the spotlight on worker safety issues again, raising the question of whether it is time to push for even higher workplace safety standards.

On July 14, a section of a Pan-Island Expressway (PIE) viaduct under construction in Upper Changi Road East collapsed. One worker was killed and 10 others injured.

What more can be done to make workplaces safer in Singapore?


A look back to measures taken after the 2004 accidents is instructive.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) reviewed the workplace safety framework. Its staff visited Britain, Germany, Sweden and France to study their laws and practices.

It announced a new occupational safety and health blueprint in Parliament on March 10, 2005, to cut workplace deaths by one-third in five years and by half in a decade, or 2015.

On Oct 17, 2005, the ministry proposed new legislation in Parliament - the Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) Act - to replace the Factories Act to regulate occupational safety and health.


When the proposed law was debated in January 2006, then Manpower Minister Ng Eng Hen said the three high-profile accidents had "added new impetus and urgency" to MOM reforming the Factories Act - which it had started studying how to do so five years earlier. The new legislation was passed and enacted that year.

In November 2005, the MOM also set up a Workplace Safety and Health Advisory Committee to help industry efforts to raise occupational safety and health standards. The committee became the WSH Council in 2008 and it continues to champion workplace safety and health today.

These multiple efforts bore fruit.

By 2010, workplace fatalities fell to 2.2 per 100,000 workers, achieving the target to reduce such deaths by half - five years ahead of schedule.

A new target to further reduce the deaths to 1.8 per 100,000 workers was set on 2009, and achieved on 2014. Workplace fatality rates have fallen from 4.9 per 100,000 workers in 2004 to a record low of 1.8 in 2014.

However, the improvements were not sustained and workplace fatalities crept up in 2015 and last year. In both years, the fatalities crept up to 1.9 per 100,000 workers.

The number of workplace injuries also fell gradually from 460 per 100,000 workers in 2007 to 364 in 2015, before creeping up to 382 last year.

Singapore's record is mixed compared with other countries'.

It fares better than the United States, which had 3.38 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2015. But it lags way behind Britain, which had 0.43 deaths per 100,000 workers from April 2016 to March this year.

If Singapore were a member of the European Union, it will roughly be at the lower middle half of the 28 member states in terms of workplace fatalities, coming in behind countries like Britain, Germany, Denmark and Sweden, which had fewer than one death per 100,000 workers.

Official statistics released last week showed that 19 workers died on the job between January and June this year, down sharply from 42 in the same period last year.

Similarly, the number of injured workers declined from 6,245 to 6,151 in the same period.


If Singapore is to keep up the trend of reducing workplace accidents and deaths, it needs to have a clearer picture of the top causes of such injuries and deaths.

In Singapore, the top causes were slips, trips and falls, and being struck by moving vehicles. Most fatalities were from the construction sector.

A study of overseas trends found similar patterns. Last month, the Health and Safety Executive, the British government body responsible for workplace safety and health, released data which showed that the construction sector was the most deadly in the United Kingdom, from April last year to March this year. The two top causes of death for workers were falls from height and being struck by moving vehicles.

The US also has a similar pattern. In 2015, the construction sector had the most number of fatal work injuries, and the two top causes of deaths were transportation incidents, and falls, slips and trips.

What is also telling is that no country has been able to cut workplace fatalities to zero on a sustained basis.


To bring worker safety to the next level, Singapore needs to go beyond reducing work falls and accidents.

We need to review the regulatory environment too.

In the case of the recent PIE viaduct accident, the main contractor for the work was Or Kim Peow Contractors (OKP). It was awarded the contract in November 2015 despite another fatal accident having taken place just two months earlier, at the company's worksite at another flyover.

Senior Minister of State for Transport Lam Pin Min said in Parliament last week that the contractor was given "a low safety performance score" when the Land Transport Authority (LTA) evaluated the bids, but its "lowest tender price and good track record in completing many similar infrastructure projects over the past 10 years" outweighed its low safety score.

In other words, low price won over safety concerns.

The LTA should rethink the balance between price and safety.

If it tilts the balance further in favour of contractors without safety lapses, it gives contractors a financial incentive to keep their workers safe.

This is not the only area that the authorities ought to review. Another area is the WSH Act itself.


The last major update of the WSH Act was in 2011 when main contractors were made responsible for worksite safety and MOM officers were given more powers to investigate worksite hazards.

The MOM started reviewing the law earlier this year.

It is looking at enhancing deterrence against worksite accidents, improving the industry's learning from such accidents through the release of accident reports, and raising the maximum administrative fine for offences that result in serious injuries or deaths from $20,000 to $50,000.

Labour MP Melvin Yong said the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) supports tougher punishment.

"It acts as a deterrence and sends a strong message that any WSH breaches are not to be taken lightly," said the NTUC director for workplace safety and health.

The Government can consider imposing a custodial sentence or unlimited fines as deterrence, said Mr Vernon Voon, employment and labour relations partner at law firm RHTLaw Taylor Wessing.

He pointed out that in the UK, "corporate manslaughter" is an offence that can lead to jail time for the company's executives if they are found to be criminally responsible for the deaths, and the courts can impose unlimited fines at 5 to 10 per cent of a company's turnover.

"In cases where an industrial death occurs from the gross negligence of the company's officers, the Government could perhaps look into legislating a minimum custodial sentence on the company," he said.

Besides updating the law, another approach is to rope in more parties to lower workplace injuries.

So far, the WSH Council has focused primarily on the three-way partnership of the Government, unions and employers.

Insurers are another player that can help in reducing workplace injuries and fatalities.

Insurers monitor workplace accidents and, in particular, companies with poor track records to understand what is going wrong, said Mr Karl Hamann, chief executive of QBE Insurance Singapore.

"We also have a role in holding companies to account, making it clear that having insurance should not make safety an afterthought," he added.

If the authorities can learn from insurers how they gather information and assess workplace risks, then it can have a more complete picture of risk assessments and, logically, improve risk prevention.

Thirteen years ago, the horrifying Nicoll Highway collapse and series of high-profile industrial accidents triggered sweeping action that made the workplace safer for workers.

The PIE viaduct collapse last month is an early warning bell.

We should not wait until more deaths pile up before we are spurred to do more to prevent more workers from getting injured or dying on the job.

Toh Yong Chuan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2017, with the headline 'Workplace safety: The next frontier'. Print Edition | Subscribe