Concern over workplace safety mounts as S'pore firms grapple with Covid-19 pressures

A fire investigation team at the site of an accident in Tuas that killed three workers, on Feb 25, 2021. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The squeeze on manpower as well as the disruption brought about by the Covid-19 crisis to projects in sectors like construction have raised fears about safety being compromised at worksites of late.

Latest figures from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) indicate that the number of workplace injuries has also increased slightly to close to 3,300 between January and March, compared with about 3,100 during the same period last year.

The data for injuries last month is not yet available.

More than 3,200 workplace safety and health (WSH) contraventions were found during inspections between January and last month, partially due to stepped-up enforcement efforts this year.

This is nearly double the 1,800 breaches for the same period last year.

There were also 14 workplace fatalities between January and last month - same as the figure for the same period last year.

These figures do not include passengers who were injured or killed in traffic accidents while commuting to and from work.

Last month, there were two such fatalities when workers who were travelling in the back of a lorry were involved in an accident.

Though the figures have not increased sharply from last year, groups such as the Singapore Contractors Association Limited (Scal) and the Singapore Manufacturing Federation (SMF) said that the pressure now to complete delayed projects may increase the risk of workplace accidents and injuries.

There is also a possibility that injuries may be under-reported, said a spokesman for the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics' (Home) casework team, who noted that most of the injured workers seeking Home's help have employers who had not reported their injury within the stipulated timeframe under the law.

Responding to queries from The Straits Times, a Scal spokesman said the construction sector is currently facing a serious labour crunch, as many workers have left Singapore and are now unable to return due to the closure of borders.

"Contractors and subcontractors are indeed facing high pressure to complete projects on time but there are no additional workers in the market. Workers thus have to work faster and even longer hours," said Scal.

This rush to complete jobs could also mean that there is less time devoted towards conducting risk assessments on sites, said Dr Goh Yang Miang, former chairman of the health and safety engineering technical committee at The Institution of Engineers, Singapore (IES).

Mr Arjun Nair, a safety officer with experience in construction, also noted that many firms lack the resources, manpower and time to conduct in-house safety and health retraining where required, owing to the impact of Covid-19.

This means that workers may overlook safety elements, he said.

The Home spokesman said many workers have reported that they are clocking 16 hours or more at worksites after the circuit breaker period last year.

Two of 17 migrant workers travelling on the back of a lorry died after the vehicle collided with a tipper truck on the PIE on April 20, 2021. PHOTO: SCREENGRABS FROM FACEBOOK

Some common safety violations that the Home team often encounters include too few workers tasked to manually lift and move heavy loads, resulting in some of them sustaining back injuries, or exacerbating injuries from falls.

Beng Khim Engineering and Construction director Thomas Oh also said he is concerned about workers' mental health amid the Covid-19 crisis.

"They are worried about their family members back home... Some are not sleeping or eating well (because of this), but they still have to work and this could affect safety," he told ST.

Migrant workers may also still be suffering from side effects even after recovering from Covid-19, said Mr Alex Au, vice-president of migrant rights group Transient Workers Count Too, who noted that about half of the migrant workers staying in dormitories have had Covid-19.

Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore, noted that fatigue and difficulty in concentrating have been reported as possible symptoms of the long-term effects of a Covid-19 infection.

"This can affect many of these migrant workers who need to operate or pay attention to heavy machinery, or who may be working at heights... and increase the risk of workplace injuries," he said.

Structural factors

There are also some longstanding gaps in the WSH regime at worksites that may compound existing safety issues faced.

For instance, WSH coordinators - a requirement for construction projects below $10 million - are often foreigners here on work permits, said Mr Nair.

As they fear backlash or losing their jobs if they highlight lapses, these foreign WSH coordinators are often not well-placed to raise safety issues, which will mean that risks will go unchecked, he added.

Firms are also required to conduct an internal investigation for less serious accidents and submit a report to MOM, said WSH officer Han Wenqi.

But such internal investigations tend to be less thorough and may not be able to weed out the root causes of the accident, he said, which means that systemic issues are not fixed.

Mr Koh Kok Heng died after falling 4.7m through an opening in the floor while overseeing construction work at a semi-detached house near Dunearn Road. PHOTO: ST FILE

What can be done?

SMF president Douglas Foo urged firms to retrain staff to ensure they are familiar with workplace safety procedures, among other things.

Scal also asked for more to be done to reduce the pressures faced by firms, including extending more financial support through schemes like foreign worker levy reductions, and allowing in skilled workers from non-traditional sources, such as Vietnam and Cambodia, to replenish the workforce.

The Home spokesman also called for fines imposed on principal contractors and site occupiers for serious accidents occurring at their sites to be pegged to the value of the project, to ensure that they are properly incentivised to prioritise safety.

"Employers may calculate that the cost of incurring late penalties, if work is held up by following proper safety (procedures), outweighs the likelihood of penalty if caught," said the spokesman, explaining why the move could address this problem.

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