Companies with unsafe work conditions may be barred from hiring new foreign workers: MOM

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SINGAPORE - Companies will not be allowed to hire new foreign workers for up to three months if unsafe work conditions or poor risk controls are found following serious and fatal workplace accidents.

The chief executives of these companies will also have to personally account for the lapses and take responsibility for rectifications, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said on Thursday.

It comes amid a worrying rise in work-related deaths and injuries. The number of workplace fatalities as at Sept 1 stands at 36 for this year compared with  37 workplace deaths for the whole of last year.

The enhancement of workplace safety requirements is part of a six-month heightened safety period being imposed on companies by MOM, which can be extended if necessary.

During this period, companies in higher risk sectors will have to conduct a safety time-out, which will be made mandatory for the first time.

It affects all companies in the construction, manufacturing, marine, process or transport and storage industries, as well as companies in other industries which use heavy or industrial vehicles, such as lorries and forklifts.

MOM said vehicular accidents were the top cause of workplace deaths this year, accounting for one in three of the 36 fatalities.

Between Sept 1 and 15, companies in the targeted sectors will have to suspend operations temporarily to review safety procedures and complete a list of safety time-out activities.

MOM did not specify the length of the safety time-out but said it should be sufficiently long to “review risks corresponding to the scale of the operations”.

Among other things, the company’s top management has to personally do a walk-about on site to encourage workers to report safety risks and near misses to their supervisors.

The activities will need to be documented and this will be checked by MOM officers during routine inspections.

The ministry said if the safety time-out activities are not conducted by Sept 15, the companies will be barred from hiring new work pass holders for one month.

In May, companies here were urged to take a safety time-out following 10 fatal workplace accidents the month before, but this was done on a voluntary basis.

At a press briefing on Thursday, Senior Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad said companies here may feel that the new heightened safety period is onerous and may aggravate their challenges.

“However, I wish to assure everyone that they need not worry if they make safety a priority,” Mr Zaqy said.

“Any disruptions that you face as a result of lax safety practices are temporary, but the impact of injuries and fatalities on workers and their families is permanent. We have to start with the baseline that we have zero tolerance for fatalities and injuries,” he added.

MOM on Thursday also gave details about plans announced earlier to standardise the criteria used to disqualify unsafe contractors from public construction tenders, and to tighten the demerit points system for construction firms.

The clamp down on safety lapses follows an increase in workplace fatalities, which is projected to hit a rate of 1.6 per 100,000 workers this year, the worst since 2017. 

In the past week alone, there were three separate fatal accidents, involving two migrant workers from Bangladesh and a Singaporean worker.

This is despite increased penalties, stepped up inspections and repeated exhortations by the authorities to firms and workers to take workplace safety seriously.

In comparison, the workplace fatality rate in 2019 was 1.1 per 100,000 workers.

MOM said it will introduce from Oct 1 specific measures targeting the construction sector, which has been the top contributor to workplace fatalities this year.

There have been 13 deaths to date in the sector.

Errant construction firms will receive demerit points from the first fine onwards.
Previously, firms incurred demerit points after being fined four times for safety lapses. 

The number of demerit points for serious accidents will also be raised from 18 to 25, giving it equal weight as fatal accidents.

Main contractors and first-level sub-contractors that accrue 25 demerit points or are enrolled in MOM’s Business Under Surveillance (BUS) programme will be disqualified from public construction tenders for between three months and two years.

Companies that have fatalities, multiple workplace injuries or poor safety records, are put on the surveillance programme.

They undergo a rigorous assessment by MOM and are required to analyse gaps in their management systems and come up with a plan to make changes.

A multi-sectoral workplace safety task force will be set up to conduct deep dives into the work practices and structures within specific industries.

The task force will be chaired by Mr Zaqy and comprise safety consultants as well as industry representatives.

The task force will also be advised by external experts.

The key government agencies involved in the task force include the Ministry of National Development, Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

MOM on Thursday said more than half of the 36 workplace deaths this year involved small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). 

It said more support will be given to SMEs so they can access external safety consultants under the Workplace Safety and Health Council’s StartSAFE scheme.

In a Facebook post on Wednesday, National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) assistant secretary-general Melvin Yong said the recent spate of accidents serves as a wake-up call for companies and workers here.

"It is never too late to develop corrective and preventive measures to prevent future reoccurrences," Mr Yong said following a visit to SMRT's Bishan Depot, where he was briefed about the rail operator's safety practices.

"NTUC calls on all companies, big or small, to take immediate steps to carry out a comprehensive appraisal of their risk assessment and enhance risk controls."

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