Worker competency a big safety issue

The recent report on rising workplace fatalities makes for grim reading ("Concern over rising workplace deaths"; May 25).

Perhaps it is time for the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to carry out a historical review of workplace safety since the Factories Act was replaced with the Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) Act.

It has been about 10 years now since the WSH Act came into effect, and it has incorporated many subsidiary legislation, such as regulations pertaining to work at heights and in confined spaces, and in risk management.

Have all these regulations, together with their prescribed penalties, helped to reduce the number of workplace fatalities?

Perhaps there is only so much that legislation can do before things reach a plateau.

Experience on the ground certainly points to the competency of workers and supervisors as a major problem. This is because we are still bringing in foreign workers who are mostly illiterate and, worse, have never worked in basic construction before, some being farmers, much less in a complex construction and manufacturing environment.

The current system is such that these workers attend a two-day safety orientation course and some other trade-related courses, and then are deployed for work.

In order to ensure that accidents do not befall these unskilled workers, it is necessary to have them under close supervision.

But how effective will the supervision be? How big an area would one supervisor be in charge of?

Of course, the onus is on employers to see that these workers are properly trained and familiar with the work environment. But, with the high cost of doing business, as well as the levies to be paid for each worker, is it any wonder that many will try to maximise what they can get from these workers?

The MOM should look into the issue of competency to address the rising number of fatalities, rather than roll out more legislation and enforcement.

In some countries, workers are put on year-long apprenticeship programmes before they are deemed skilled workers.

In the light of the government effort to build up a Singaporean core, it would be a good idea to gather those retrenched and/or actively seeking employment and put them on an apprenticeship programme, with the right remuneration, and train them as skilled workers rather than rely so heavily on foreign workers.

It will take time, but in the long run, the competency of the workforce will be raised, and there will be fewer fatalities.

Chua Tiong Guan