Imagine putting together 46,000 workers to work on a massive construction job over five years. There are bound to be injuries and, perhaps, even a number of fatalities.
Actually, there were none. This remarkable feat was achieved in the build-up to the 2012 London Olympics when in building the stadiums, tracks, an aquatics centre and a games village, not a single workplace fatality occurred. The statistics generated by that Olympian feat were worthy of a medal itself.
In the 80 million man-hours worked, the construction force accomplished 30 periods of one million hours worked without a reportable injury, plus five periods of two million hours and two periods of three million hours without injury.
This produced an Accident Frequency Rate of 0.16 injury per million man-hours - well below the average for the British construction industry.
Currently, Singapore's workplace fatal injury rate is 1.9 per 100,000 employed persons, translating to 66 fatalities last year, with 29 per cent - or 19 of them - due to falls. In 2008, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong set the goal of reducing the workplace fatality rate from 2.9 in 2007 to 1.8, or better, by next year.
Trying to achieve a fatal injury rate of zero right away may sound like wishful thinking. But working towards it is laudable.
About 25 per cent of all fatal and non-fatal occupational injuries worldwide are caused by falls (The Lancet). Globally there are, according to the International Labour Organisation, some 96,000 fatal falls and 68 million fall-related non-fatal accidents every year.
In Singapore last year, other than fatalities, 41 per cent of major injuries and 32 per cent of minor injuries were caused by falls. These include falls from height as well as slips, trips and falls. The majority of the falls from height cases were in higher-risk sectors such as construction and marine, while slips, trips and falls cases occurred in various sectors.
As surely as gravity will always act on a falling apple, the number of fatalities caused by falls in Singapore can be brought down. Unlike gravity, a natural force, fatal falls are man-made and preventable.
HOW OTHERS DO IT
Finland, where I come from, has a similar-sized population as Singapore's of about 5.5 million. However, the difference in the number of construction workers is huge, with Singapore having 400,000 workers - three times that of Finland, which has 130,000.
In Finland, the workplace fatal injury rate due to falls in 2013, when it was last analysed, was 0.2 per 100,000 employed persons in all sectors. There were two fatalities due to falls then, of which one was in construction.
Last year, Singapore's workplace fatality rate for the construction sector was 4.9 per 100,000 employed persons. There were 19 fatal falls, of which the bulk (seven cases) was from construction.
Singapore can aspire to figures like Finland's through a combination of measures that include:
commitment from management;
enforcement and inspection;
total workplace safety and health, a holistic programme to look at all risks at work;
knowledge, evidence, experience and best practices that are effectively passed on;
enhanced techniques, processes, equipment and tools;
workplace culture, attitudes and behaviour that are continually improved.
The Singapore Government, together with the WSH Council, takes a serious view of workplace safety and health (WSH) and has put in place various regulations and voluntary measures. However, employers and employees must also take ownership of WSH. This has to come from the top down with constant training, follow-up and reminders for both new and existing employees.
Companies can also learn from one another. Woh Hup's The Interlace condominium was completed with no fatalities or other reportable accidents in 14.4 million man-hours, demonstrating exemplary practices.
There are many things we can do, starting from schools, vocational institutions and universities, as building a safety and health culture is a slow process. The Ministry of Manpower and the WSH Council have done well in this area. It is important to go further and not allow the fatal fall rates to stagnate.
Human beings tend to assess low risk as certainty. If you have driven your car at 80kmh in a 50kmh zone, it could falsely reinforce bad behaviour. But if such bad behaviour is multiplied by all drivers doing this regularly, the fatal accident rates would multiply.
In an airplane, you are likely to be afraid that it may crash; yet you are not afraid of driving in your car, which is much more dangerous. The airline industry consistently reminds passengers about seat belts and exit routes. That kind of behaviour is needed in the construction industry and wherever there are risks of falls.
Another illusion is the "turkey illusion". The bird is at first wary of its caretaker, but then learns that he comes regularly and always provides food. This continues day after day - until Thanksgiving. The turkey will run happily to the caretaker and that will be the end of it.
The learning point is that past experience and perceived lack of risk do not mean there is no risk.
The concept of Vision Zero is a mindset where we recognise that all injuries and ill health at work are preventable. It is easy to think that having 99.9 per cent level risk-free operations is acceptable. But with the global workforce numbering 3.4 billion, that would mean 3.4 million workplace deaths annually - obviously unacceptable.
Each day, approximately 100,000 commercial flights land safely. A 99.9 per cent success rate would mean 100 airline accidents every day. In reality, 300 to 500 people die annually from commercial airline accidents, while 2.3 million die from workplace accidents and diseases globally.
Aiming for Vision Zero is not about a single action but instilling a "safety and health first" mindset in all stakeholders. It is like a pyramid. Having one fatality on-site is symptomatic of many smaller accidents and injuries below. To eliminate that fatality at the top, you must eliminate the thousands of "almost accidents" at the base of the pyramid before they become serious.
Is zero fatal falls achievable?
Yes, it is, in the following possible timeframes:
Any company and workplace can do so in one year's time, and then for many years in a row. The non-fatal period frequency should be gradually extended from a year to 20 years.
All industries - other than the traditionally higher-risk ones, such as construction and marine industries - can do so in one year's time with better risk management. If the risk level is lower, we can expect quicker results.
The construction and marine industries, which employ a large workforce, can do so in five to 10 years' time, but that will require intensive efforts.
One major factor in reducing workplace accidents is using modern and clever techniques in building to lessen the risk of falling from height. The fewer workers you have in risky operations, the better.
For example, I saw the building of a condominium in Helsinki. The whole toilet was like a container box - prefabricated in a factory, transported by truck, and lifted by crane into place. All in, it took two construction professionals about two hours to put it together. Then they moved on to the next flat, with another modular toilet on the way, ready to be put in place.
Given the tight labour market here, the long-term solution is to carry out more processes outside of the construction site using a prefabricated system with automated processes in place.
Also, it is not necessarily prudent to go for the lowest price tendered, but to go for a better price with the stipulation that there will not be a single fatality, as evidenced in the London Olympics building project.
Singapore can vastly improve its fatal injury rate.
Using benchmarks set elsewhere, Singapore should have no more than six fatalities a year. If one were to use the London Olympics building project as a benchmark, it would translate to four fatalities. In short, there are several approaches that can be taken to reach Vision Zero.
The writer is a senior consultant at the Workplace Safety and Health Institute at the Ministry of Manpower, and president of the International Commission on Occupational Health. He will speak at the 21st World Congress on Safety and Health at Work to be held in Singapore from Sept 3 to 6.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2017, with the headline 'Zero falls at worksites and how to get there'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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