SINGAPORE: Public transport operator SMRT Trains was fined a record S$400,000 on Tuesday (Feb 28) for safety lapses that resulted in the deaths of two employees on Mar 22 last year.
SMRT pleaded guilty on Tuesday to one charge under the Workplace Safety and Health Act (WSHA) for failing to take measures necessary to ensure the safety and health of its employees at work.
Trainees Nasrulhudin Majumudin, 26, and Muhammad Asyraf Ahmad Buhari, 24, were hit and killed by an oncoming train between Tampines and Pasir Ris MRT stations. They were on the train tracks between the two stations when they were hit.
They had been part of a 15-man team, led by assistant engineer Lim Say Heng, sent to investigate a possible signalling fault. SMRT admitted after the accident that maintenance staff had not followed safety procedures.
Instead of taking a designated train to the worksite, as per safety procedures, Lim led the team onto the train tracks - during traffic hours and without warning incoming trains - and proceeded on foot to the site via a walkway running parallel to the tracks.
Lim had also failed to obtain the necessary approvals to impose what is known as a “0/0 code” to prevent trains from freely entering the tracks on which the team was working.
A series of miscommunications between Lim, an officer at Pasir Ris MRT station, and an officer at the Operations Control Centre (OCC) at SMRT’s headquarters at North Bridge Road meant the code was never imposed on Mar 22.
The only safety measure attempted was a handwritten note put up at Tampines MRT station to warn train drivers to contact the OCC if a “0/0 code” was imposed.
But since it was not, and the note did not indicate there were workmen on the track ahead, the driver of the next train proceeded as per normal.
By the time he spotted Mr Nasrulhudin and Mr Asyraf on the tracks, it was too late. Though he applied the emergency brakes, the train could not stop in time. Mr Nasrulhudin and Mr Asyraf were pronounced dead at the scene by paramedics. They died from multiple injuries, prosecutors said on Tuesday.
The other men in the group had either not left the walkway or managed to jump off the track, back onto the walkway to safety.
SMRT’S WORST FATAL RAIL INCIDENT TO DATE: PROSECUTION
Deputy Public Prosecutor Anandan Bala urged the court to fine SMRT S$400,000. “SMRT’s worst fatal rail incident to date … took place against the backdrop of an inexcusable systemic failure to ensure (track work) is carried out in strict compliance with (safety procedures),” DPP Anandan said.
He singled out the OCC, which is in charge of approving and supervising track work, for “giving the green light for employees (to work) in clear contravention of (safety procedures)”.
He pointed out that in 2015 alone, employees accessed train tracks during traffic hours at least 200 times. “The majority of these were not conducted in compliance with (safety procedures),” the DPP said.
Teo has been charged with one count under the WSHA. His case is still before the courts.
SMRT REVIEWED, REVAMPED SAFETY PROCEDURES: DEFENCE
Senior Counsel Andre Maniam, representing SMRT, urged the court not to impose a fine higher than S$250,000.
Mr Maniam said SMRT has “reviewed and revamped” its safety procedures. “Strict compliance is required (and is) reinforced by better record-keeping and (a) review of the circumstances of each request for track access,” he said.
And though SMRT regrets the deaths of two employees, Mr Maniam stressed that “it is important not to overplay the situation”, reminding the court that the operator has not been charged with causing the men’s deaths.
Lim, who led the 15-man team, bears that weight. He has been charged with negligence causing death. His case is still before the courts.
SAFETY BREACHES SERIOUS, AGGRAVATED: JUDGE
District Judge Chay Yuen Fatt said a culture of widespread non-compliance with safety procedures, as well as SMRT’s failure to enforce compliance, meant the procedures were “not worth the paper these were printed on”.
Calling SMRT’s safety failures “fundamental and serious”, Judge Chay added it was highly disconcerting and aggravating that the failures were systemic and had occurred on many levels. He added that, at the very least, SMRT ought to have known of the failures.
“Not only were the (safety procedures) not followed, a completely different and clearly unsafe set of practices had been adopted for the longest time by SMRT employees. The actual practices appeared to have evolved over time in a haphazard fashion to suit the convenience of the employees … who were very much left to adopt whatever practice they deemed convenient,” Judge Chay said.
He ordered SMRT to pay a fine of S$400,000 by next Monday. Under the WSHA, SMRT could have been fined up to S$500,000.
In a statement on Tuesday, managing director of SMRT Trains, Lee Ling Wee, said the company accepts full responsibility for its safety lapses and respects the court's decision.
"We have comprehensively reviewed our safety protocols and procedures, and are determined to never again have a repeat of the Mar 22, 2016 tragedy," he said.
"SMRT is committed to a safe work environment for our staff and a safe transport network for our commuters. All of our staff are empowered - regardless of rank - to call a time-out if they feel safety is compromised. Safety continues to be accorded the highest attention and priority in the company.”
Lapses in safety procedure that took place on the day of the accident. (Source: Attorney-General's Chambers)