Safety time-out needed after second fatal Tuas blast this year: Labour MP

The latest blast occurred while three Singaporean workers were performing maintenance work inside an electrical switchroom at Tuas Incineration Plant.
The latest blast occurred while three Singaporean workers were performing maintenance work inside an electrical switchroom at Tuas Incineration Plant.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - There has been an alarming rise in workplace accidents and deaths this year, said National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general Melvin Yong on Saturday (Sept 25).

He said in a Facebook post the recent blast at Tuas Incineration Plant was a grim reminder of this.

For at least the third time this year, the labour MP called on companies here to conduct safety time-outs and to reassess their work processes.

Thursday's blast at the National Environment Agency (NEA)-owned plant left one worker dead and two seriously injured.

Mr Yong urged all companies to work with labour unions to train safe management officers to become dedicated workplace safety and health representatives.

This is so that a good safety culture can be instilled at the workplace, he said.

Meanwhile, workplace safety experts lamented that the blast occurred while an inquiry into another fatal explosion in a Tuas industrial building was ongoing.

The explosion in February at fire protection systems contractor, Stars Engrg, killed three men and injured 10 others.

Mr Yong noted there have now been 28 workplace deaths in just nine months this year, compared with 30 in the whole of 2020.

He said: "Clearly, we must act now to prevent any (more deaths) from happening."

The latest blast occurred while three Singaporean workers were performing maintenance work inside an electrical switchroom at the plant.

A 65-year-old man was pronounced dead at the scene. Two other men, aged 59 and 64, had burn injuries and were taken to Singapore General Hospital.

The Amalgamated Union of Public Employees (AUPE) said it is working with the NEA to provide assistance to the families of the three workers.

Of the two who were hospitalised, one is a union member and will get a daily hospitalisation benefit as part of the union's mutual aid scheme, it said.

AUPE is also considering giving a token sum of money to the families of the two non-union workers.

Mr Yong and the Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) Council previously called for safety time-outs in late June after a string of nine workplace deaths in May and June.

In February, Mr Yong, the WSH Council, Senior Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad and the Singapore Contractors Association had also called for a safety time-out on the use of machinery.

This was after seven workplace fatalities in three weeks that month.

February's workplace death toll would eventually rise to 11, including the three workers who died at Stars Engrg.

Dr Goh Yang Miang, who is an associate professor at the National University of Singapore's Department of the Built Environment, said research in other countries such as Spain, Poland and China have shown there is a tendency for occupational accidents to rise during periods of economic recovery and expansion.

This, he believes, is one of the key drivers behind the recent spate of accidents.

A former chairman of the health and safety engineering technical committee at The Institution of Engineers, Singapore, he said: "In a way, the current situation is showing we are facing the same problem.

"It seems to imply that the economic conditions are putting a lot of pressure on workplaces, and there is a tendency for people and companies to neglect safety and health whenever they are in a rush to get their jobs done."

While the number of workplace fatalities has fallen over the years from 66 deaths each in 2015 and 2016 to a record low of 30 last year, WSH officer Han Wenqi said this is not enough and the root causes for these accidents have not been weeded out.

He said poor safety habits are usually the result of months or years of systemic lapses that are not addressed, as they may not have led to safety incidents.

He suggested better feedback channels for workers to raise concerns, preventing workplace supervisors from overriding these concerns, and called for firms to take immediate action when unsafe practices are flagged.

Dr Goh suggested the WSH Council and other organisations could create safety kits for families to remind their loved ones about common safety issues.

He said a strong safety culture requires both top-down and bottom-up approaches.

Dr Goh added: "Managers have to first place strong emphasis on safety and people on the ground also need to play ball."