Empower workers to speak up on safety issues

Having been in the field of safety and operations for the past 20 years, I am happy to note that many excellent initiatives are being undertaken to reduce the number of workplace accidents in Singapore (Boosting safety at workplaces; Sept 7).

My work in this field has revealed that there is a crucial step which we often miss when ensuring that injuries are kept to an acceptably low level.

This step is the empowerment of workers to speak up and voice any issue of concern openly, without the fear of reprisal.

The managements of many organisations would be displeased or outraged if the lowest worker on the assembly line stops operations because he notices that something is not as it should be.

In the field of safety science, this worker is called the "sharp end worker".

These workers, even though sometimes considered "unskilled", are experts in their field, as they perform their tasks every day.

They should be encouraged to voice their concerns with no fear of punishment or discrimination - this will help prevent accidents.

Safety officers need to listen to sharp end workers, encourage open discussions and facilitate meaningful and inclusive dialogue about safety issues at every level of the organisation.

Singapore has some way to go before we can reach this state.

There is a range of reasons for this, including the management not being well-informed about what's happening on the ground, and concerns that delays and demands stemming from these discussions could cost them time and, therefore, money.

However, it is heartening to see that safety is being brought to the forefront.

It is now time for a mindset shift and to see safety not just as volumes of documentation sitting in a manager's office, but as being, quite simply, about the way we work every day.

Viji Vijayan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2017, with the headline 'Empower workers to speak up on safety issues'. Print Edition | Subscribe