A district judge was scathing in his remarks on SMRT Trains after imposing a record $400,000 fine yesterday on the company, over an accident last year in which two trainees died.
Meting out the deterrent fine, District Judge Chay Yuen Fatt found that SMRT's culpability was high and that the "failures were fundamental and serious".
What the employees were doing on the day in question was highly dangerous, the judge said. He said it was revealed that there were safety operating procedures (OPs) in existence but sadly, they were "not worth the paper on which these were printed, if they were printed at all".
SMRT had pleaded guilty yesterday to one charge under the Workplace Safety and Health Act for failing to take measures necessary to ensure the safety and health of its employees who had to access the train tracks during traffic hours.
On March 22 last year, the two trainees died when a train crashed into them shortly after they stepped onto the tracks, in what is SMRT's worst fatal rail incident.
Operator now has more stringent checks
SMRT Trains has implemented more stringent checks for track access during traffic hours, and stepped up training for persons in charge who lead its track inspection teams since the accident.
In mitigation, it said that its "genuine remorse" for the accident is also clear from the immediate action it took to ascertain the cause of the incident, undertake a review of its processes, and review and revamp its operations to prevent similar incidents.
Among other measures, it has also set up a Track Access Management Office to control access to railway tracks, and revised its operating procedures by simplifying the language to remove ambiguities.
But SMRT Trains accepts full responsibility for its safety lapses and respects the court's decision, it said in a statement yesterday.
Its managing director Lee Ling Wee said SMRT has comprehensively reviewed its safety protocols and procedures, and is "determined to never again have a repeat of the tragedy". He said all staff are empowered - regardless of rank - to call a time-out if they feel safety is compromised.
National Transport Workers' Union executive secretary Melvin Yong, in a Facebook post, urged SMRT to seek the union and workers' input as feedback would help identify potential safety gaps.
Mr Nasrulhudin Najumudin, 26, and Mr Muhammad Asyraf Ahmad Buhari, 24, were part of a 15-member team sent to check on an apparent fault relating to switching equipment when they were hit by the train near Pasir Ris MRT station.
In his remarks, the judge noted the scale of the lapses and SMRT's ignorance of its staff's practices.
He said: "It was also highly disconcerting and aggravating that the failures were systemic and had occurred on many levels and that, at the very least, SMRT ought to have known of these failures, even if it did not in fact know of them."
He went into further details on the OPs and said that not only were OPs not followed, but a completely different and clearly unsafe set of practices had also been adopted for the longest of time by its staff.
The practices appeared to have evolved in a haphazard fashion to suit the convenience of the employees. These were neither documented nor disseminated. The official safety protocols were either unknown or completely disregarded.
The judge also found that the risk and potential for harm was high.
Deputy Public Prosecutor Anandan Bala said this was not a one-off incident. As early as 2002, the Operations Control Centre, which is in charge of granting permission for and supervising track access, had been approving requests that did not comply with the OPs.
This was SMRT's third transgression of workplace safety within a short span of 5½ years, he said.
In mitigation, SMRT's lawyers, Senior Counsel Andre Maniam and Ms Jenny Tsin, said it has reviewed and tightened its OPs.
Mr Maniam said his client failed to detect that employees had deviated from the OPs to minimise disruption of train services, albeit while maintaining adequate safety standards. He said: "These deviations were never documented, approved or authorised by SMRT for the simple reason that SMRT did not know of them."
He said statistics on track access for limited clearance tracks - which means there is just enough space for people to step aside for a train - bore out SMRT's submission that the adaptations of the OPs did not compromise employees' safety.
In 2015, while about half of some 200 instances deviated from the OPs, staff ensured in all instances that measures were always in place before stepping onto the tracks.
Both trainees' families declined comment when contacted.
Mr Chan Yew Kwong, director of the Manpower Ministry's Occupational Safety and Health Inspectorate, said: "There is no excuse when companies fail to protect their employees from workplace safety and health risks." The company could have been fined up to $500,000.