To keep HDB lifts working, they risk their safety time and again
These lift technicians are exposed to occupational hazards like falls and electric shocks to ensure that residents have smooth and safe rides, as On The Red Dot discovers.
SINGAPORE: Few people are aware of just how great the risks are for a lift technician. One could fall down the lift shaft, get electrocuted by high-voltage wires or even be pinned under the lift while working on it.
Last month, a worker was killed during lift upgrading works in a public housing block. In 2017, a technician died after a lift pinned him to the top of the shaft.
READ: Foreign worker found dead during lift replacement works in Chai Chee
In 2016, there were at least 10 lift incidents, including instances of injuries to passengers and the death of one.
That is why lift technicians like Mr Mohammad Hazri Ghazali place great emphasis on their safety on the job, and also ensure that they do a good job of maintaining the lifts for residents.
“There are a lot of wires down here,” cautioned the 38-year-old as he pointed to a spot inside a lift shaft.
“If I step on an oily (patch), I may slip and fall. From 30 storeys … I think your body would be smashed, right?”
The risks are amplified when he is activated to attend to faulty lifts at night. He said: “At night, when you’re alone, if you faint or get electrocuted … (or) trip and fall – if anything happens to you – nobody would know.”
The risky work of lift technicians like him is highlighted in a four-part series on the programme On The Red Dot. (Watch the episode here.)
Watch: The lift fixer (4:20)
WORKING AT HEIGHT
There are about 67,000 lifts (as at July) and some 2,100 lift technicians in Singapore. This works out to around one technician for every 32 lifts.
Up to 1,000 more technicians, however, will potentially be needed in the coming years, National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general Melvin Yong said in September. But many people are put off by the dangerous and dirty nature of the work.
And until the industry’s progressive wage model kicks in, some others prefer a better-paying job than the basic starting wage of S$1,300 to S$1,850 for assistant lift specialists.
READ: Government accepts recommendations for progressive wage model, clearer career pathways for lift industry
In Mr Hazri’s case, he started off doing electrical and mechanical work after his National Service, before joining the lift industry as a serviceman 15 years ago.
His duties included maintenance work, changing spare parts, making oiling adjustments and doing minor repairs.
However, he had one big phobia he needed to confront: His fear of heights. To service the equipment, he sometimes had to go up the lift car, located as high as 40 storeys.
He recalled his first time perched atop a lift: His legs were shaking as he peered down. “I was totally scared of heights,” he admitted.
Even now, looking down the lift shaft unnerves him a little “because if I fall … that would be the end of me”.
“That’s why I’m living on the second floor. My wife also has this fear of heights – she agreed that we should stay on a lower floor,” said the father of two.
But he has become braver over time, especially after undergoing safety courses. “It’s not true (that if you’re) afraid of heights, you can’t work as a lift technician,” he added.
“How I overcame my fear was by not thinking about it … Just concentrate on what you’re going to do to troubleshoot. Just try not to look down and think that ‘if I fall down, what’ll happen to me?’”
400-VOLT ELECTRIC SHOCK
Apart from the hazards of working at height, lift technicians risk getting injured by sharp parts and getting electrocuted, especially in the motor room, usually located above the lift shaft on the rooftops of Housing and Development Board blocks.
“The wires are quite high-voltage (and) can kill you,” said Mr Hazri, who has an ex-colleague who suffered concussion from a 400-volt electric shock.
“I advise all the technicians … not to touch (the high-voltage wires). Just use your test pen … to see whether there’s a live (wire) or not. To be safe, switch off the mains.”
When he uses the cat ladder to access the motor room, he makes sure that he maintains three points of contact, which means two hands and one foot, or two feet and one hand, on the ladder at all times.
And he wears personal protective equipment, such as a helmet, protective clothing and a safety harness, whenever he is working.
Another technician, Mr Vellavan Krishnan, said the heat takes a toll on them sometimes. “There’s no fan nor even lights in the hoistway,” he said.
“(If) it’s a very hot day and very humid inside … you may get heatstroke, faint or something. The chances of an accident are very high.”
For Mr Hazri’s part, he is especially cautious when working late at night, as there is often no one to keep a lookout for him. “Late at night, doing calls isn’t as simple as in the day,” he said.
“In the day, everyone is around. You shout, people can hear.”
TAKING A TOLL ON FAMILY
Now as a call-back technician attending to lift breakdowns and faults – instead of servicing equipment – he is frequently on standby duty. This means he could be activated at odd hours.
“I sleep, on average, for about five to six hours. But if I’m on standby, I’d get two hours of sleep, attend to the call and after that (get) another two hours of sleep, then go to work,” he said.
The irregular hours are affecting his family. His wife, Ms Noor Azlen Husin, is often alone at home as she takes care of their newborn son and six-year-old boy, who misses his father when he is not around.
And it can get frustrating for the couple. “My wife keeps calling me and asking where I am and (whether) I’ve eaten or not. When you’re focusing on doing something, you don’t want anybody to call,” said Mr Hazri.
When he returns home late, he sometimes finds them awake, waiting for him and worried about his safety.
It has not been an easy time for Ms Azlen, who also gets “a bit frustrated” when he does not answer her calls or text messages.
“After I gave birth, he said that he’s got a lot of standby (duties) and has to stay late because of a lot of lift upgrading. So I struggled a bit with my babies,” she said.
“I can’t say no. I understand his job scope, so I have to be more understanding.”
But she has wondered what he does at work, as his uniform is often stained. “He said he just repairs the lift, but I didn’t know that he has to climb (to the rooftop),” she added.
“I feel a bit sad because he has to work so hard.”
Mr Hazri hopes his wife will now understand what his job entails. “Maybe she can see that I’m working from a great height, so maybe she won’t call me every time,” he said.
STILL ENJOYING THE JOB
Quite apart from his wife, he has to manage residents who are annoyed when their lifts break down. He feels that some of them do not appreciate the efforts of lift technicians.
“They said new lifts have also broken down. But we can’t assume that new things won’t break down. We just tell them that we’ll try our best to solve the problem,” he said.
Since a spate of lift accidents in 2015 and 2016, the authorities have stepped up maintenance and safety enhancements.
READ: Lifts in HDB estates under PAP town councils to get new safety features
For example, in Taman Jurong in 2015, an elderly woman’s hand was severed after it got trapped between lift doors while she was trying to get her dog to enter.
The next year, an elderly man using a motorised wheelchair died after toppling over backwards when a lift in Pasir Ris stopped above ground level.
The challenges are great, but Mr Hazri enjoys the troubleshooting aspect of his job where he gets to learn more about lift maintenance.
“I feel satisfied after I troubleshoot a lift,” he said. “I’d share (the details) among my group (of colleagues), so the next time they attend to this kind of case, they’d have a rough idea (of what to do).”
He even has a circuit board at home, which he relies on during his days off to help his colleagues who face difficulties on site.
He hopes to pass his skills and knowledge to a new generation but reckons that lift technicians like him are a dying breed, their jobs to be replaced by robots in future.
READ: AI eyed to help bring lift maintenance to a higher level
In fact, Surbana Jurong, which monitors about 25,000 lifts in Singapore, has been looking at artificial intelligence to mitigate the manpower shortage.
“Maybe in future … robots can detect the fault, then the technicians come and (rectify it),” said Mr Hazri. “So I hope that the electronics can (take) the lift industry to a higher standard.”
Watch this episode here. On The Red Dot airs on Mediacorp Channel 5 every Friday at 9.30pm.