Inquiry committee to be set up to probe Tuas blast

Lift technician also killed in separate accident yesterday as work-related deaths hit 11 in 2021

An inquiry committee will investigate Wednesday's explosion at a Tuas factory that has killed three workers so far and left five others still in critical condition.

Announcing the inquiry yesterday - the first for a workplace accident since the one into 2004's Nicoll Highway collapse that killed four people - Senior Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad said the Tuas blast was one of the most serious workplace incidents in Singapore in recent years.

The committee, which will be appointed by Manpower Minister Josephine Teo with proceedings held in open court, is expected to carry out a thorough study into what led to the tragedy and will recommend measures to prevent it from happening again. The inquiry will be led by a district judge with two technical assessors.

Placing workplace safety under even more scrutiny was the death yesterday of a technician while carrying out repair works at a lift shaft in North Bridge Road.

He was found trapped in a narrow gap between a lift carriage that was between the second and third storeys of the building, and the metal support structure of the lift. Investigations are ongoing.

The latest death brings the number of work-related fatalities to 11 this year. In separate incidents, three workers fell from height, three were caught between objects and one was involved in a work-related traffic accident, according to the Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) Council. All the accidents happened this month.

Last year, when the circuit breaker came into force, 30 fatalities were recorded, compared with 39 in 2019.

On his Facebook page yesterday, Mr Zaqy said Singapore has made significant improvements to workplace safety and health over the past 15 years. For instance, the fatal injury rate at workplaces fell from 4.9 for every 100,000 workers in 2004 to 1.1 in 2019.

But he said industries cannot let their guard down. "Because every life lost is a breadwinner and a loved one lost. I strongly urge all our industry stakeholders to continue to pay close attention to workplace safety as we restart our economy in a safe manner amidst the pandemic."

In Wednesday's incident, a fire broke out at fire protection systems firm Stars Engrg which then led to an explosion. Ten people were taken to hospital, and two have since been discharged.

Preliminary investigations found that the explosion was caused by the accumulation of potato starch in a confined environment.

After a visit to the accident site on Thursday, WSH commissioner Silas Sng said: "It is a known scientific fact that materials in powder form can be explosive when they are dispersed in the air in an enclosed environment.

"Potato starch is one of the materials that this particular company used for its product. Over time, the dust can accumulate, especially if the ventilation or housekeeping is inadequate."

A Ministry of Manpower (MOM) spokesman yesterday said the last time a combustible dust explosion occurred here was in 2013. Two workers suffered minor injuries and the occupier was fined $5,000.

MOM later conducted an enforcement operation targeting chemical companies processing powders, and issued a circular to guide companies on managing risks of combustible dusts.

According to its website, Stars Engrg was incorporated in 2010.

Mr Han Wenqi, a workplace safety and health officer, said that the safe handling of combustible materials should be common knowledge for companies that use them, and the threat should have been picked up during risk assessments. He said: "We need to ask how long potential hazards have been around before the workplace fatality occurred, and if the work site had adequate resources to identify these hazards."

In the wake of the Tuas accident, MOM said it would carry out an additional 300 inspections in high-risk industries till the middle of next month as part of Operation Robin. The operation, which began in December, was supposed to end this month with 400 inspections, which have already uncovered 486 contraventions and led to seven stop-work orders being issued.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 28, 2021, with the headline 'Inquiry committee to be set up to probe Tuas blast'. Subscribe