SINGAPORE - More firms have been penalised for failing to adhere to workplace safe management measures despite repeated calls to make working from home the default and to ensure safe distancing at the office.
Between Sept 28 last year - when the measures were last eased - and Jan 15, there were 42 employers fined for such lapses, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) told The Straits Times.
The most common violations were firms getting their employees to report to the office although they could work from home, and for failing to put clear safe distancing markers in common areas at the workplace.
MOM fined the 42 companies after inspecting 5,380 workplaces.
This comes after the ministry imposed 52 fines of $1,000 each on errant employers in June last year, and ordered seven workplaces to shut for lapses.
In December, it had also launched an operation targeting the transport and storage sector in anticipation of increased activities due to the festive period.
While the vast majority of firms have been compliant, MOM said it will continue to step up inspections and highlight areas employers should pay attention to.
Workplace safe management measures, which include caps on the number of workers allowed back in offices, were put in place at the end of the circuit breaker period in June last year.
They were last eased on Sept 28 when more employees were allowed to return to the workplace.
Last month, the Singapore National Employers Federation, the National Trades Union Congress and MOM said working from home should remain the default arrangement to minimise the risk of Covid-19 transmission in offices.
The tripartite partners had reviewed workplace restrictions after Singapore moved to phase three of its reopening in December, but decided to hold off on any further adjustments.
They cited the risk of new Covid-19 strains, which could be more transmissible, as well as the recent uptick in virus cases in the community.
Of the four active clusters now, three have links to the workplace.
Companies in various sectors said they have got used to working remotely, although some differed on the extent to which such arrangements should continue post-pandemic.
Most suggested a hybrid model where staff can enjoy some flexibility.
For Wizlearn Technologies chief executive Victor Yuk, 45, the experience of having his entire workforce quarantined last year pushed him to fully adopt remote working.
The e-learning solutions firm was at the centre of a cluster of 14 cases in February last year, and all 90 employees have been telecommuting for the past 11 months.
The switch was not without challenges, with Mr Yuk losing five employees who were unable to adapt.
But productivity is higher now than before the pandemic, so most of his staff will continue telecommuting in the future, he said.
"There is no reason for me to expose all of them to unnecessary risk if they can continue to work and be productive," Mr Yuk added.
Mr Lim How Kiat, general manager of Ademco Security Group's Singapore operations, said employers who breach safe management measures could endanger the safety of their employees and the community at large.
"More often than not, the employers lack trust in their employees. That's why they call them back, which is totally unnecessary," said Mr Lim, 43.
While it was not easy implementing the safe management measures for Ademco's 190 employees, the firm has managed to adapt.
Still, Mr Lim said he would welcome having more employees back in the office, which has been missing its family-like culture.
Both UOB and DBS Bank have committed to giving their employees the flexibility to work remotely even after Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.
The two banks, as well as OCBC Bank, said those in the offices and bank branches were reminded to adhere to measures such as wearing a mask and keeping a safe distance from one another. The banks also conduct regular checks.
Ahead of Chinese New Year, UOB has warned its staff against hosting or encouraging workplace gatherings while OCBC's group corporate security head Francisco John Celio said the bank will not organise activities that might draw large crowds.
He said: "We are mindful that we are not out of the woods yet."
Recent clusters at workplaces
POLICE K-9 UNIT CLUSTER
Those who fell ill included a para-veterinarian and a police administrative officer. Both work at the police unit in Mowbray Road.
The para-vet, 32, tested positive on Jan 13. His wife, a 28-year-old prisons officer, fell ill the next day .
The admin officer, 44, had a dry throat but did not seek medical treatment. His wife, 43, their eight-year-old son, and two family members were later found to be infected.
GOLDEN BRIDGE FOODS MANUFACTURING CLUSTER
Two of the cases are co-workers at the food processing plant in Senoko.
The first worker, 33, tested positive on Jan 15. He took seven days of medical leave before returning to work but then developed a fever.
His wife, 48, a food processing worker at Soon Lee Heng Satay Foodstuff Manufacturer in Woodlands Loop, later tested positive. A 31-year-old colleague, who is also his housemate, also tested positive.
BS INDUSTRIAL AND CONSTRUCTION SUPPLY CLUSTER
Five salesmen, aged 26 to 39, and a finance employee, 28, fell sick and the firm in Kallang is now under investigation for possible safe management breaches.
Four of the firm's employees had symptoms but did not seek treatment or report that they were unwell.
The two other cases are the 39-year-old salesman's wife, 43, who works from home as an online trader; and a 46-year-old Toppan Merrill saleswoman, who lives with the 28-year-old finance employee.
COVID-19 WORKPLACE MEASURES
The labour movement, employers' union and Ministry of Manpower opted against relaxing prevailing safe management measures for workplaces last month.
These are some of the current rules for employers:
• Employees whose jobs can be done from home must continue to work from home for at least half of their working time.
• No more than half of those who can work from home are allowed in the office at any one time.
• Meetings should be held virtually as much as possible.
• Those in the office should have flexible or staggered hours. At least half of all employees at the workplace should start at or after 10am.
• If not, there must be other arrangements to reduce congregation, such as at entrances and exits, for the different groups.
• Implement shifts or split team arrangements and avoid cross-deployment or interaction between teams, even outside of work.
• Staff must wear a mask at all times.
• Maintain a clear physical spacing of at least 1m at meeting rooms, work areas, workstations and at work events.
• Common spaces must be regularly cleaned, particularly areas with high human contact.