Construction firms blame rise in fatalities on labour cuts, worker fatigue

Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin (centre) visiting the Sentosa worksite where a supporting structure collapsed on Jan 29, 2014, leaving one dead and 10 injured. -- ST FILE PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin (centre) visiting the Sentosa worksite where a supporting structure collapsed on Jan 29, 2014, leaving one dead and 10 injured. -- ST FILE PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Construction industry players are blaming a sharp rise in worksite deaths on the shortage of workers coupled with pressure to complete projects on time.

With workers being made to put in longer hours, they told The Sunday Times, fatigue can set in and accidents happen.

The Workplace Safety and Health Council revealed earlier this month that 33 out of 59 of all workplace deaths last year occurred at construction sites. That works out to seven fatalities per 100,000 workers, up from 5.9 in 2012.

And in the first three months of this year, construction has accounted for 12 out of 19 workplace fatalities - an average of a death a week.

"The manpower cuts over the past few years are severe," said Straits Construction executive director Kenneth Loo, referring to the increase in foreign worker levies and cutting of man-year entitlements in recent years.The Man-Year Entitlement reflects the total quota of foreign construction workers allocated to a contractor for a specific project.

He explained that as the sector still relies heavily on labour, it is "quite common" for companies to make their workers clock extra hours to meet deadlines and avoid financial penalties. "When workers do overtime continuously, fatigue can kick in and increase the risk of accidents," he said.

Mr Derick Pay, director of Tiong Seng Contractors, agreed. "Workers may not get enough rest, and this affects safety," he said.

Another contractor, an industry veteran of 18 years who declined to be named, believes many accidents have happened because projects were being rushed.

"Labour supply is limited, and a lot of workers are multi-tasking. This divides their attention, makes them less focused and more prone to accidents," he said.

Contractors and workers alike said that poor attitudes towards safety make matters worse.

Mr Jimmy Chua, group general manager of Huationg Holdings, recalled an incident last year in which a worker from India kicked on a wrench he was using to tighten a bolt. The metallic tool pierced his right boot and and foot. Said Mr Chua: "It's complacency."

Worker Liang Ke, 25, who came here from China two years ago, said: "I've seen so many people not wearing a safety harness when working at heights. They think it's too troublesome. Everybody wants to finish the job faster. Who thinks about safety when rushing?"

Inexperience also plays a part.

As a crane operator of more than 30 years, Mr Lee Tian Min recalled an incident two years ago involving a Myanmar worker who was barely a few months into the job. "He was on a boomlift and wanted it to move right. But he was not familiar with it and accidentally pressed the wrong button," recalled the 59-year-old.

The boomlift shifted left instead, pinning the worker's hand between the equipment and a roof structure. "Experience is very important. You must know how to protect yourself," said Mr Lee.

The Workplace Safety and Health Council plans to tackle the problem of rising construction deaths with new safety programmes and stricter enforcement.

Some companies hope to improve the situation by giving their workers incentives to shape up on safety.

Huationg, for instance, has a scheme in which workers vote for colleagues with good safety habits. Every month, the three with the most votes get $60.

"We want to motivate them instead of penalising them," said Mr Chua. "Safety should not be just about compliance, but a culture."

yeosamjo@sph.com.sg

Register here to get free digital access to The Straits Times until Aug 9, 2015.
Comments