Workplace safety. workplace incident, Singapore, Ministry of Manpower

Companies’ compliance with the code of practice, or lack thereof, can be used by the Courts to take action against company leaders and its board of directors in the event of a WSH Act offence.

In the first six months of 2022, Singapore's Ministry of Manpower (MOM) reported a "worrying spate" of 28 workplace fatalities — in comparison, there were a total of 17 incidents during the same period pre-COVID in 2019.

In light of this, in a recent parliamentary response, Minister for Manpower Dr. Tan See Leng addressed questions including:

  1. How many reports the reporting channels for unsafe workplace acts, such as SNAP@MOM and the Occupational Safety and Health Hotline, have received in the last 12 months;
  2. What recourse there is for vulnerable foreign workers who are made to work without safety protection by recalcitrant employers; and
  3. Whether a fundamental workplace safety review will be carried out.

View the full set of questions asked by Members of Parliament

Providing more information, Dr. Tan shared that falls from heights and vehicular incidents alone accounted for half of these fatalities. Based on MOM's preliminary investigations, most of these accidents were due to preventable safety lapses such as inadequate control measures or lack of adherence to safe work procedures.

By industry, the Minister elaborated, 80% of fatalities this year occurred in industries with higher-risk work settings, with 10 fatalities in construction, five in transport and storage, and four each in marine and manufacturing. While these accidents happened across companies of different sizes, the majority occurred in small and medium enterprises.

"All of the accidents involved workers with at least two years of working experience, therefore MOM is of the opinion that inexperience is unlikely to be a contributory factor. For instances where other co-workers were involved, all of the co-workers had at least three years of working experience," Dr. Tan pointed out.

In total, over the past five years, MOM received around 2,400 to 3,800 reports annually on unsafe acts at the workplace, from various channels including the Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) hotline, eFeedback on MOM’s website, and referrals from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and unions. These reports were mainly made by members of the public and complainants who chose to remain anonymous.

In dealing with the reports, MOM assesses each feedback, inspects the workplace where needed, and ensures that the company makes the required rectifications. Where egregious lapses are found, MOM takes enforcement actions against the company.

As shared by Dr. Tan, around 84% of inspections conducted following reports of unsafe acts in the past 12 months resulted in enforcement actions taken, including fines and stop-work orders.

Dr. Tan reminded that employers must do their part to ensure the safety of their workers, as required under the law. MOM has been taking stronger enforcement actions and has introduced stiffer penalties against errant employers, which include fines and/or imprisonment for company leaders. 

A new Approved Code of Practice is in the works

To strengthen WSH ownership and the accountability of company leaders, MOM is developing a new Approved Code of Practice (ACOP) for Company Directors’ WSH Duties, to provide clarity and practical guidance on how to fulfil legal obligations. Companies’ compliance with the ACOP, or lack thereof, can be used by the Courts to take action against company leaders and its board of directors in the event of a WSH Act offence.

Dr. Tan stated: "The Government takes a strong position on safety in its procurement. Today, safety is part of the evaluation criteria for the public sector’s construction tenders and some public sector developers also disqualify contractors with poor work practices. We are developing a harmonised disqualification criteria across all the public sector’s construction tenders to disqualify contractors with poor work practices. We are also reviewing the current demerit points system to take a tougher stand on breaches under the WSH Act or Regulations to debar errant contractors from participating in public sector contracts and from hiring foreign employees.

"I encourage the private sector and members of the public to also shape your procurement policies to hire firms with strong safety track records, by checking firms’ WSH performance on CheckSafe on MOM’s website."

To strengthen WSH practices on the ground and improve WSH oversight, MOM is also reviewing the coverage of WSH personnel such as WSH auditors, officers, and coordinators. MOM is also looking to institutionalise pre-start assessments, such as weekly site coordination meetings and daily toolbox meetings to coordinate works across sub-contractors, eliminate incompatible works, highlight potential hazards and implement control measures.

Next, MOM has also been working with Government Procurement Entities to include suitable WSH technologies as part of the specifications for some public sector’s construction tenders. In that vein, Dr. Tan urged companies to implement WSH technologies, such as surveillance cameras or closed-circuit television.

Apart from the above, MOM, together with the WSH Council, National Trade Union Congress, and industry partners had earlier called for an industry Safety Time-Out for companies to review their WSH management systems. This includes risk assessments, risk control measures, and relevant WSH training, and for companies and workers to learn from the recent fatal accidents.

The WSH Council also works closely with industry associations and companies - particularly SMEs - to strengthen their risk management processes through the bizSAFE programme. To date, more than 40,000 SMEs have benefited from the programme. 

Ending off, Dr. Tan added: "We have made good progress on WSH from a decade ago, reducing workplace fatal injury rate from 2.1 per 100,000 workers in 2012 to 1.1 per 100,000 workers in 2021. As of end 2021, we were on track to meeting our WSH 2028 workplace fatal injury rate of less than 1.0 per 100,000 workers, achieved by only four OECD countries.

"These are high standards that we set for ourselves. We are committed to strengthening our WSH framework to make managements and boards more accountable for WSH safety, enhancing our training and capability support, and tightening our enforcement regime including stronger penalties and debarment for unsafe companies."

Dr. Tan encouraged all workers, including migrant workers, to report unsafe workplace conditions or acts to their supervisors or employers, or directly to MOM. "Workers may also approach union leaders or NGOs such as the Migrant Workers Centre, who will work with their employers to make the appropriate rectifications or direct the feedback to MOM for follow-up.

"The identities of whistle-blowers are kept confidential. Employers are also not permitted to dismiss or threaten to dismiss workers who have reported workplace safety and health issues and MOM will take action if they are reported to have done so."


Image / Shutterstock

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