It is necessary to embrace the aim of eliminating workplace injuries and fatalities because every incident exacts a heavy toll on workers and their families. It is unconscionable to allow tragedy to keep striking, especially in construction, manufacturing and marine sectors which have a higher rate of accidents.
The latest move is to reduce fatalities to less than one death per 100,000 workers in 10 years' time. Last year, there were 1.9 deaths per 100,000 workers, a ratio based on the 66 workers who had died on the job. The rate must come down as the country has to hold itself to higher standards associated with the developed world.
In developing nations, there is a deplorable propensity to treat the lives of workers as dispensable. This unconcern reflects conditions in countries where overpopulation, low standards of living, poor expectations of governance and dismal enforcement of regulatory standards all conspire to produce a lethal environment for workers. Singapore must never allow that mindset of unconcern to prevail, no matter how competitive workplaces become.
Ambitious safety targets can be achieved through a three-way partnership involving the Government, employers and unions. The Workplace Safety and Health Act, introduced in 2006, played a part in erecting a regulatory fence around workplace practices. But that alone is not enough. Regulations are protective ultimately: they cannot be enabling. That task falls on employers and workers.
All organisations ought to look at how affordable technologies can be tapped to help meet the daily need of ensuring that workers perform well but safely. Practical examples include risk-free virtual reality simulation that permits supervisors and workers to prepare for worksite challenges in real life.The supplementary use of robots - for example, to paint the high ceilings of industrial buildings - removes the risk of workers falling from a height. Likewise, drones that inspect industrial settings make it unnecessary for workers to climb scaffoldings or abseil down buildings.
Unions are best placed to act as a catalyst in relations between the Government and employers on issues of workplace safety. They are placed closest to workers, whose well-being is their chief concern. At the same time, unions are attuned institutionally to the larger needs of the economy that drive both employers and the State. They must play their role in bringing to the surface workers' fears of faulty or outright unsafe worksite practices, articulating these to the other two tripartite partners. Simultaneously, unions must encourage workers to adopt a safety mindset that reduces the probability of individual error. There is no foolproof formula but only the legacy of painful experience in making Singapore a safer place for work.