Saturday, 14 May 2016

Stiffer penalties for workplace safety lapses

By Olivia Ho, The Straits Times, 13 May 2016

Companies found lacking in workplace safety and health standards will now face stiffer penalties, including a longer minimum period in which they have to stop work.

Stop-work orders will now last at least three weeks, up from two previously. Companies slapped with a stop-work order or found with a workplace fatality will also risk having their work pass privileges temporarily curtailed, making them unable to hire new foreign workers until they have resolved safety issues.

Announcing the changes yesterday, Minister of State for Manpower Sam Tan said they were in response to the recent spate of workplace deaths: There were 28 in the first four months of this year, six more than in the same period last year.

Mr Tan, who spoke at a surprise construction site inspection in Geylang Road, said a longer stop-work order was a "harsh" financial penalty for companies but stressed that safety remains paramount.

"If companies don't take safety seriously, we can't take their commercial interest as seriously," he said.

For a company hiring a hundred workers, an extra week of a stop-work order could cost tens of thousands in salaries paid, but for no work done - and this does not include damages levelled by the developer for missing deadlines.

The Geylang Road worksite between Lorong 19 and 21 was issued with a stop-work order after the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) visit.

The MOM declined to reveal the name of the company.

New conditions for lifting stop-work orders now include compulsory refresher training on all areas of weakness, as well as a re-evaluation of the site's work safety and health management system by approved external auditors.

Contractors call for review of approach to workplace safety
They worry stiffer penalties could affect firms' viability and say that responsibility should extend to other parties
By Aw Cheng Wei, The Straits Times, 21 May 2016

Contractors have raised concerns that stiffer safety measures implemented a week ago by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) could send firms that are already strapped into deeper crisis.

In a statement yesterday, the Singapore Contractors Association (Scal) said the more stringent measures would worsen the "dire situation for meeting deadlines and financial penalties" for errant firms.

"It will have serious consequences on the viability of the construction firm," said a spokesman.

MOM's new measures require companies found to have poor workplace safety and health standards to stop work for at least three weeks, a week longer than before.

They were aimed at addressing the deteriorating workplace safety that has seen 28 workers die on the job between January and April, six more than in the same period last year. Yet another worker died on Thursday from injuries during construction on the Tuas West Extension of the East-West MRT Line. The Straits Times understands MOM is investigating the incident.

Scal, the industry's largest body, called on stakeholders and the Government "to review the approach taken for construction safety".

Its spokesman said contractors, who face time and cost pressures in completing projects, are not the only ones responsible for worksite safety. Safety measures should be specified as a criterion in tender and procurement processes, he said, noting that "reasonable timelines" and separate budgets for safety should be considered from the get-go.

"Some public sector jobs already have such provisions for safety," said the spokesman.

Under the new measures, companies that have a workplace fatality risk having their work pass privileges temporarily curtailed, so they cannot hire new foreign workers until they resolve safety issues.

Conditions for lifting stop-work orders include compulsory refresher training in weak areas and re-evaluation of the site's work safety and health management system by approved external auditors.

The extra week will cost a firm with 100 workers more than tens of thousands of dollars in salaries - excluding the amount levelled by the developer for missing deadlines.

Meanwhile, contractors "will work closely" with another association, the Construction Industry Joint Committee (CIJC), comprising engineers, architects and developers, to improve workplace safety.

Better-trained workers are another way to avoid accidents, said safety officer Han Wenqi, who has been in the construction industry for 10 years. "Supervisors and assessors should go for refresher courses so they can be better informed about safety practices," said Mr Han.

A spokesman for MOM said yesterday that the new measures are necessary to "push companies with poor safety practices to take immediate action".

MOM will "continue to work closely with the industry, including Scal and CIJC, to improve" workplace safety.

In Thursday's fatal incident, the Singapore Civil Defence Force said it received a call at 4.30pm and deployed an ambulance to the scene in Tuas West Road. A worker was taken to Ng Teng Fong General Hospital, it said.

Additional reporting by Tiffany Fumiko Tay

* Concern over rising workplace deaths
Besides stiffer penalties for bosses, observers say safe work practices must be stepped up
By Olivia Ho, The Straits Times, 25 May 2016

The number of workplace deaths this year has hit 32, six more than in the same period last year.

The latest took place yesterday, bringing to four the number of fatalities after stiffer penalties for employers with safety lapses came into force two weeks ago.

A man in his 50s died at his workplace in Kee Seng Street, a day after a 23-year-old construction worker was killed by a falling steel truss.

The prevalence of workplace fatalities has prompted the authorities to raise penalties for offenders, but observers say much more needs to be done to step up safe work practices and prevent further deaths.

"We are deeply concerned with the recent spate of fatalities," Minister of State for Manpower Sam Tan told The Straits Times yesterday. "We will continue to take strong enforcement actions against errant employers and will prosecute those who are found liable for the accidents. We call on employers and workers to work together to take all measures to prevent further workplace accidents."

The Manpower Ministry (MOM) announced on May 12 that it would raise the minimum time for companies ordered to stop work, from two to three weeks.

Companies also risk being deprived of new foreign workers until they have resolved safety issues.

The Singapore Contractors Association hit back at the move a week later, saying the stiffer penalties would worsen the "dire situation for meeting deadlines and financial penalties" for errant companies.

Yesterday, its executive director, Mr Lam Kong Hong, stuck to his position, calling for preventive rather than punitive measures: "A longer stop-work order could aggravate the contractor's inability to meet a deadline, and it might have to rush the job even more. That would impose a potentially higher risk."

He also said workers might suffer a pay cut with a longer stop-work order, as they cannot clock overtime.

Two labour MPs said the spate of workplace fatalities was a "worrying trend", but said draconian measures alone would not work.

West Coast GRC MP Patrick Tay, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Manpower, said human error was a key cause of these fatalities.

"It could be mere carelessness or fatigue, or it could be negligence and complacency," he said. "A company can have many standard operating procedures but it boils down to every single worker."

Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Zainal Sapari, the GPC's deputy chairman, called for the training quality for safety officers to be enhanced.

"While you can engender a safety culture among your own workers, you also need to ensure you engage your subcontractors in systems, structures and processes that promote work safety," he added.

Singapore Institution of Safety Officers president Bernard Soh said it was all very well for company management to commit to better safety, but often this did not trickle down to the workers.

Safety bulletins put up at sites can be too wordy, he said. "I don't think the worker would understand everything even if he knows a bit of English. Safety officers need to translate things to workers at team meetings, in bite-size pieces of information," he said.

Safety officers said they are stepping up efforts in the wake of the recent deaths and tougher measures.

Vigcon Construction safety officer Mohammad Hidayat Hamzah said it has increased worksite safety inspections from once to twice a week, and doubled the number of officers doing checks.

Advocacy groups for foreign workers, who form the bulk of construction and marine workers here, said more has to be done to regulate working conditions.

Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) executive director Jolovan Wham said fatigue played a significant but underrated role.

"If you have to work 12 hours or more every day, seven days a week, no matter how careful you are, you will make mistakes, lapses will occur, and accidents will happen."

He added that workers were reluctant to speak out against safety lapses as it might cost them their jobs.

Workers interviewed were not aware of the rise in fatalities, but were concerned about accidents.

Said Indian national Palanimuthu Palaivalathan, 31: "If we get injured, we can't work and the company won't give us our salary."

Bangladeshi electrical worker Md Ontu Islam, 27, said: "When accidents happen, sometimes it's the worker, sometimes it's the site, sometimes boss pushes too hard."

But no worker wants to be hurt.

"If I get injured, how can I give my family money?" said Mr Ontu.

"This is what every worker thinks. Everyone thinks of safety."

Additional reporting by Aleysa John and Jessie Lim

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