Death of cleaner found in refuse chamber in Punggol a work-related misadventure: Coroner

The cleaner was found dead in the refuse chamber at Block 623C in Punggol Central on Oct 16, 2021. PHOTO: SHIN MIN DAILY NEWS FILE

SINGAPORE - A cleaner who was not trained to operate refuse handling equipment at a refuse chamber in an HDB estate did so and ended up getting pinned by it.

Mr Lim Hee Huat was found dead in the chamber at Block 623C in Punggol Central on Oct 16, 2021.

On Wednesday, State Coroner Adam Nakhoda ruled the death of the 54-year-old Singaporean a work-related misadventure.

The judge said Mr Lim was employed by Lian Cheng Contracting, and his job included sweeping corridors, emptying waste bins around the blocks and disposing of the waste at a centralised refuse chamber.

At the chamber, he was to maintain its cleanliness through tasks such as clearing the refuse handling equipment’s discharge tray and sweeping and mopping the floor.

This did not require him to operate the refuse handling equipment, which was meant to be done only by refuse collectors and the maintenance team.

But on each of the two days before his death, Mr Lim operated the equipment, closed-circuit television footage showed.

At about 8am on Oct 16, 2021, after Mr Lim threw rubbish in bins outside the centre, he pressed the start button of the refuse handling equipment, as rubbish began to be discharged, the CCTV footage showed.

After stopping the machine, he stood in front of the outlet and removed items inside and from the discharge tray. As he was leaning over, the gate came down and pinned him, causing his ribs to fracture.

After some time, a motorcyclist riding past spotted Mr Lim, and gesticulated to a car driver nearby.

They went to investigate, before another motorist called the police.

Due to a power trip, police and Singapore Civil Defence Force officers who arrived at the scene could not lift the gate that was pinning down Mr Lim.

The power trip was overridden at 8.54am.

After the gate was lifted, Mr Lim’s body was retrieved and he was pronounced dead.

The state coroner said it was unclear why Mr Lim would operate the refuse handling equipment, noting that doing so would increase his workload.

Mr Lim had likely picked up how to operate the equipment by observing the refuse driver and crew using it, the judge added.

On a previous occasion, Mr Lim had been asked by a resident to retrieve an item that had been thrown by accident into the chute, and he informed his direct supervisor, who operated the refuse handling equipment.

There was no evidence that Mr Lim was similarly assisting any resident between Oct 14 and 16, 2021, said State Coroner Nakhoda.

He added that Mr Lim had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was admitted twice to the Institute of Mental Health – in 2002 and 2003 – for overdosing on his medication.

A report in July 2021 stated that his bipolar disorder was stable and that he was not suicidal.

State Coroner Nakhoda, who said there was no mechanical failure in the refuse handling equipment that contributed to Mr Lim’s death, added that employers of cleaners should strictly ensure that they do not operate such equipment.

He expressed his condolences to Mr Lim’s wife, son and daughter, who were in court on Wednesday.

The son, Mr Jason Lim, told The Straits Times that he hopes his father’s death will serve as an important lesson.

“After this case, there shouldn’t be any other cases like this,” the 29-year-old optician said.

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