SINGAPORE - Companies should make workplace safety a regular item on the agenda of board meetings and demand effective safety standards from suppliers, under a code of practice that will be gazetted next month to give it teeth.
The code, which is meant to improve workplace safety culture in Singapore, also includes measures such as setting up internal reporting systems that assure workers of fair treatment. It comes after a spate of workplace fatalities this year, with 37 deaths to date.
Launching the Approved Code of Practice on Chief Executives' and Board of Directors' Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) duties on Monday, Manpower Minister Tan See Leng reiterated that it is critical for companies to prioritise safety in spite of the challenges brought on by Covid-19.
"For a strong WSH culture to germinate, grow and flourish, it must start from the top - with the chief executive and company directors. This is because they are the ones with influence and control over budget, priority and training," he said at the Singapore WSH Conference held at Singapore Expo.
The new code of practice aims to distil good safety management principles and practices into actionable steps for others to adopt and adapt, Dr Tan said.
Gazetting the code means that if a company commits an offence under the Workplace Safety and Health Act, the courts can consider compliance with these measures in their judgment.
Conversely, adhering to the main principles outlined in the code can be considered a mitigating factor, Dr Tan said.
He added that the code of practice will apply to companies in all industries, even those that have no manual work and little risk of physical injury. This is because workplace safety and health also include mental well-being of workers.
The measures outlined in the code are meant to integrate workplace safety into company processes and establish clear responsibilities for management, Dr Tan said.
He hopes the code will strengthen workplace safety culture in more companies, and "get us back on track towards meeting our WSH performance target".
Dr Tan said the code was launched after extensive consultation with the Singapore Institute of Directors, Singapore Institution of Safety Officers, Association of Small and Medium Enterprises, tripartite partners and industry associations.
A draft version was put up for public consultation from Aug 24 to Sept 8.
The code was originally slated for publication next year, but was fast-tracked after the worrying spike in workplace fatalities this year. The 37 deaths this year is the same number for the whole of last year.
Dr Tan said most of these fatal accidents were due to preventable safety lapses, such as inadequate control measures or lack of adherence to safe work procedures.
To tackle these issues, the Ministry of Manpower put in place a series of "unprecedented" measures earlier this month, including requiring companies in high-risk sectors to conduct a mandatory safety time-out between Sept 1 and Sept 15.
It also instituted a six-month heightened safety period, during which companies can be barred from hiring foreign workers if serious safety lapses are found following an accident.
Said Dr Tan: "We recognise that it has been a turbulent period as we continue to battle work pressures and uncertainties. But we cannot, and we must never, let it be an excuse to put WSH on the back burner.”
Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan said gazetting the new code of practice is an important step in getting it recognised as a legitimate source of guidance for companies.
Calling it “soft law”, Associate Professor Tan said that following such a code of practice is not mandatory, but a company that fails to do so could be seen as falling short of the legal standards.
“Companies know they have to comply with the law, but not so well on how to go about it. Hopefully the code fills the gap,” he said.
In a Facebook post on Monday, labour MP Melvin Yong said the new code signals that urgent action must be taken to reduce workplace accidents.
For Bachy Soletanche Singapore health, safety, environment and quality manager Amriq Ali and Nan Guan Construction managing director Akbar Kader, the new code is unlikely to impact their companies, which they said already implement most of the measures listed.
For instance, both firms provide their workers with a direct line to the big bosses so they can surface safety or welfare concerns.
Mr Amriq said the new code of practice should push bosses to go down to the ground more, noting that some workers have said that those leading smaller contractors and sub-contractors do not visit their own work sites.
Mr Akbar said smaller companies will face challenges such as maintaining necessary documents to show compliance with the code and overcoming cultural differences, given the large number of migrant works here.
However, bosses still need to be held responsible for the safety of their workers, he said. “If you are morally responsible, it means you know you have done the right thing. And if something happens, you can sleep at night.”