Wake-up call on work safety

Ten years ago, laws were reformed to improve workers' safety following three high-profile workplace accidents in 2004, including the collapse of Nicoll Highway.

The enactment of the Workplace Safety and Health Act meant the maximum fine for companies was raised to $500,000, up from $200,000 under the old Factories Act. A repeat offence carries a maximum fine of $1 million.

The Government argued that penalties should be sufficient to deter risk-taking behaviour and to ensure that firms are proactive in preventing accidents. The new penalties were to also reflect the true economic and social cost of risks and accidents.

Although numerous companies have been hauled to court for breaching safety requirements since the change, there had been no corresponding upward trend in the fines meted out until this year.

In September, the prosecution appealed to the High Court against the "manifestly inadequate" $150,000 fine imposed on GS Engineering & Construction Corp by a district court. GS had admitted responsibility for lapses that caused two workers to fall seven floors to their deaths at a worksite in 2014.

The prosecution also argued that, in general, the fines meted out have been too low and did not adequately uphold the public-policy concerns behind the Act.

Last Thursday, the High Court agreed that past fines had been too low, even as it pointed out that the sentencing trend persisted partly because the prosecution had neither appealed nor sought higher fines. In the case of GS, the fine was raised to $250,000 - the highest ever under the Act.

The case is a timely wake-up call for employers. The number of workplace deaths this year stands at 64, compared with 66 last year and 60 in 2014.

As the spectre of higher financial penalties becomes a reality, companies will hopefully find the impetus to proactively prevent workplace fatalities, many of which are preventable with the right safety measures, relevant training and proper equipment.

Correction note: In an earlier version of the story, we said that the number of workplace deaths this year stands at 68. This is incorrect. It should be 64. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2016, with the headline 'Wake-up call on work safety'. Print Edition | Subscribe