Workplace safety: Can we do more?

Lack of experience poses big problem

Employers face shortage of qualified workers and responsible safety officers

Safety is a concern for many construction employers, but a lack of experienced and qualified workers, and safety officers, is making it difficult to improve standards.

Greater competition for projects in the slowing economy is another factor which could lead to some corners being cut, construction company bosses and workplace safety and health (WSH) professionals tell Insight.

In good times, contractors may hire external safety consultants to audit their work, even though this is required for bigger projects only, says WSH consultant Bhupendra Singh Baliyan.

The Manpower Ministry (MOM) requires any worksite with a contract sum of $30 million or more to be audited for safety every six months at least. "But when tender prices are low, people may try to cut down on manpower and rely on, for example, two safety coordinators instead of three," Mr Baliyan says.

Mr Hooi Yu Koh, chief executive and managing director of Catalist- listed engineering company Kori Holdings, which specialises in MRT works, says retaining experienced workers with good safety awareness means having to pay them more over the years, even though profit margins remain around the same.

For example, he says, a skilled worker can double his wages in about six years. But retaining them has to be done, he says. "We can see that the more we keep senior workers, the better we are in terms of safety consciousness."

Good safety officers are hard to come by as well, says Ms Mindy Ler, director of Authentic Builder, which employs about 90 workers but can oversee hundreds more workers from sub-contractors on site.

The company was placed on MOM's Business Under Surveillance programme after an inspection last year found safety lapses. It was fined $58,000 and had to stop work for two months, says Ms Ler, adding that it has since spent more than $20,000 on audits by external safety consultants.

She has had to change safety officers more than seven times in the past two years at one residential building site in Clementi.

Ms Ler explains: "It's very hard to get someone responsible to take care of the site. Many of them just attend the (safety officer) course and go to work, but they don't do the safety paperwork or they disappear for half the day." She adds that this is despite good monthly salaries of $6,800 to $12,000 including Central Provident Fund contributions.

WSH officers must have at least a specialist diploma related to workplace safety and health and attend training to renew their registration every two years, according to the MOM website.

Workers sometimes flout the rules, and it is hard to control the hundreds on site at any one time, says Ms Ler. "They know they must wear helmets and shoes, but sometimes they walk around in slippers."

In May this year, the MOM introduced stiffer penalties for companies that flout workplace safety and health rules, raising the minimum length of stop-work orders from two to three weeks. Companies may also be barred from hiring new foreign workers until they have resolved safety issues.

Most bosses agree that stop-work orders are a significant deterrent because they affect the bottom line.

However, some contractors are budgeting the potential cost of penalties into their prices when they bid for contracts, notes Mr Baliyan.

He is among several who say they are hopeful that safety standards will improve with the new Design for Safety regulations that came into force in August.

These state that developers, designers and contractors all have to plan for the safe building and maintenance of projects.

Other suggestions from companies include getting workers and contractors to report near-miss incidents to bosses and clients so they can be learnt from, and using more productive methods such as prefabricating whole rooms, which cut down on risky activities such as working at height as these can be put in place later by crane.

More education for workers and maintaining a caring culture are important, says Mr Eng Son Yam, a construction company managing director with more than 40 years of experience in the industry. He says he meets his 100 or so workers every week and reminds them to "love each other" so that they look out for one another.

Mr Richard Teo, a safety officer at CHL Construction, a general contractor with about 60 workers, suggests that clients allocate a percentage of each contract for safety expenditure such as equipment or personnel, which companies can claim if they spend. This is instead of leaving companies to budget for safety as they wish.

"Then everybody will be on the same playing field and companies won't bid lower, and cut costs on safety aspects," he says.

To raise the standards of safety officers, there could be stricter requirements to renew their registration, or a platform for companies to leave feedback on those who do not do their job well, says Ms Ler.

She adds that all staff, from safety officers to project managers and general workers, need to play a part in ensuring a safe working environment. "It's our responsibility but we also need their cooperation."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 09, 2016, with the headline Lack of experience poses big problem. Subscribe