Why It Matters

Bolder moves, for safety's sake

Construction workers standing precariously on a single narrow platform at a construction site along Waterloo Street on Feb 14, 2015.

A total of 28 workers died in the service of their employers in the first four months of this year. That is three deaths every two weeks.

The spike - there were 22 deaths in the same period last year - got the authorities worried.

The Manpower Ministry (MOM) said it was "deeply concerned" about the deaths despite stepped-up enforcement checks. It promptly announced stiffer penalties for workplace safety lapses last week.

Companies will now have to stop work for a minimum of three weeks instead of two. They also risk not being able to hire new foreign workers until they fix safety lapses.

The authorities have not been sitting on their hands. The MOM conducts about 16,000 safety checks each year, or about 40 each day. It has also stepped up the education of employers.

There is the Workplace Safety and Health Council - a national committee of business leaders, government officials and unionists - working with the authorities to implement workplace safety measures. But if the stiffening of penalties does not work, it is time for bolder measures.

The Workplace Safety and Health Act provides for convicted employers to be jailed for up to two years.

Yet since 2014, when the MOM started publishing an annual list of workplace safety lapses, 83 employers have been convicted and all fined. None was jailed. In the same period, 154 workers died.

The ministry can push for deterrent jail sentences.

Also, the name-and-shame list provides too little information to make an impact. It merely lists the employer, date of conviction, the section of the law that was breached and the fine amount.

There are no details of what happened or whether the employer is a repeat offender. The MOM also restricts circulation of the list, saying it is for "awareness purpose only".

For the list to be effective, it must be circulated more widely and its content beefed up. Bolder measures are needed; workers' lives are at stake.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 18, 2016, with the headline Bolder moves, for safety's sake. Subscribe