'Softer' touch can make work safer

First woman to receive workplace safety officer award on an advantage of her gender

Ms Ong, an environment, safety and health senior specialist at AU Optronics Singapore, says women can be better at persuading men to follow rules.
Ms Ong, an environment, safety and health senior specialist at AU Optronics Singapore, says women can be better at persuading men to follow rules.PHOTO: DON WONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

When Ms May Ong joined her company's environmental safety and health (ESH) team 11 years ago, she was the first woman to do so and had no experience in the field.

"Preventing people from being hurt, and showing care and concern for them - it's meaningful," said Ms Ong, 60, who used to work in marketing and human resources, but wanted to help save lives.

Now a senior ESH specialist at manufacturing company AU Optronics (AUO) Singapore, she has implemented projects from recycling styrofoam boxes as buffers around glass panels, to organising a competition to see which department has the most thorough safety checks.

Last month, she became the first woman to win the Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) Officer Award since the WSH Council started the award nine years ago.

The field still seems to employ mostly men. In the WSH officer course and fire safety manager course she completed in 2011 and this year respectively, about nine in 10 classmates were male, she said.


Preventing people from being hurt, and showing care and concern for them - it's meaningful.

MS MAY ONG, senior environmental safety and health specialist at AU Optronics Singapore, on her job.

"Many women don't see themselves in this line because they think it's difficult.

"They may think you need to climb around," she said, adding that she was hesitant to join at first but changed her mind after seeing what the job is really like.

In fact, a "softer approach" may work better at times, she said. "If a male safety officer tells a man to do something, he may get aggressive, but if it's a woman he may listen."

The perception that WSH is linked only to higher-risk industries is changing, said Ms Kala Anandarajah, the WSH Council's deputy chairman.

"WSH affects everyone across all industries, whether high-risk industries like construction or perceived low-risk workplaces such as offices, healthcare, consultancies and retail," she said.

There have been at least 47 deaths from workplace accidents here this year, with none in Ms Ong's company. Part of her job involves examining accidents elsewhere and looking at what can be done to prevent them in AUO.

Her job also takes her around the sprawling 92,700 sq m plant in Tampines, which makes a type of LCD screen for mobile devices.

For about two hours every day, she inspects the premises to ensure that high-risk activities such as working at heights or welding are done according to permit requirements. She also makes sure that workers do not engage in unsafe practices such as entering machines without switching them off first.

She files reports, investigates accidents and plans training for the company and its vendors.

Even a seemingly simple work process can be improved. For example, her team picked up a Gold WSH Innovation Award in 2013 for using recycled styrofoam boxes to make a protective jig covering the exposed corners of glass panels.

But it can be a slog to ensure all the 1,000-plus employees work safely because habits are hard to change, she said, adding: "They always think 'it won't happen to me'."

She faced some resistance two years ago when the team rolled out a scheme to divide the factory into areas of responsibility. Each department had to check its own safety equipment.

"You live in your house, you know best what's going on. If you don't check the eyewash at your station, if there's an emergency and it's not working, what will happen to your eyes?"

Staff have become more receptive after efforts to promote the idea. Just this month, Ms Ong's team of eight started a company-wide game to get staff to build up the habit of doing safety checks by searching for "landmines" - hidden stickers on items that need to be checked, such as first-aid boxes, fire extinguishers and eyewash.

Outside of work, Ms Ong serves as a union secretary at United Workers of Electronics & Electrical Industries and a committee member in volunteer organisation Bedok Safety Group, which holds seminars and networking sessions for industry members.

She hopes more will see that they have a responsibility to care about safety. "If the whole of Singapore can have this kind of mindset, we will have fewer accidents," she said.

•The annual Singapore WSH Conference will be held on Aug 24-25.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2016, with the headline ''Softer' touch can make work safer'. Subscribe