The decades-long record of workplace mortality can lend an air of inevitability to it. Reduced to statistics, the tragedy of lives lost prematurely is depersonalised and industrial deaths become banal. Periodic reports typically refer to only a nameless victim who "fell from a height" or was "struck or caught between objects".
The reality is that in just the past 12 days, one person who had left for work in the morning didn't return home because he lost his balance on a scaffold and fell 13 floors to his death. Another was crushed by a forklift truck and a third person died after being pinned by a falling steel truss. Over the course of the year in the construction sector alone, 15 workers died on the job; all in, there have been 32 workplace fatalities so far. The deaths were often sudden but would not be considered unnatural by many because yearbooks routinely carry generalised information of workers being killed by excavators, piling machines, fires, explosions, chemicals and gases, collapsing structures, electrocution and much more. Twenty years ago, there were 76 industrial deaths in one year. The number continues to remain high - last year, 66 people died at workplaces.
None of the incidents ought to have happened as these were preventable. Rueing such losses for a period and returning to old routines later have the effect of normalising risks in certain sectors, when one should be resolutely building a culture of injury prevention at workplaces. Of course, cultivating and maintaining such a culture is no easy task, given the many factors at play. Systems might be deficient, machines will fail from time to time, human negligence might creep in and risks can vary at different work sites.
Still, no effort must be spared to tackle these issues as the impact of workplace deaths and injuries is considerable. At a human level, families might be stretched to breaking point when a breadwinner is killed or seriously hurt. Socially, much support must be found when children of accident victims are put at risk or rehabilitation is required for those permanently disabled. At the organisational level, the loss of key players and skilled workers might affect operations in no small measure.
To drive home the safety message, the Manpower Ministry has implemented stiffer penalties. Stop-work orders will now last longer when a workplace fatality occurs and work pass privileges might be temporarily affected until safety issues are nailed down. The financial impact of such measures is undoubtedly not insignificant. But without a regulatory prod, employers will not hunker down to tackling chronic failures in certain sectors that contribute more grim statistics relating to workplace deaths than others. The truth is, bosses need to personally lead the charge to wipe out work practices that risk life and limb.