Have minimum rest hours, improve channels to report lapses in workplace safety, says Melvin Yong
SINGAPORE: Having minimum rest hours for workers in high-risk industries and making it easier to report safety lapses were among the suggestions made in Parliament on Monday (Aug 1) to improve workplace safety.
Speaking during an adjournment motion he tabled, Member of Parliament Melvin Yong (PAP-Radin Mas) highlighted the alarming increase in workplace fatalities and injuries post-pandemic.
There have been 31 workplace fatalities so far this year, compared to 37 for the whole of 2021 and 39 in 2019.
He noted that while workplace safety improved in the years before the COVID-19 outbreak, there has been a spike of deaths, accidents and injuries as “companies rushed to clear the backlog of work caused by the pandemic”.
Mr Yong, who is also assistant secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), acknowledged that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has moved to address the issue, but asked for more to be done.
The ministry has thus far increased the number of safety inspections, upped the fine for workplace safety and health (WSH) offences and is developing an Approved Code of Practice for Company Directors’ WSH Duties, among other measures.
Since April, MOM has also ramped up inspections, imposed stiffer penalties for offences and conducted a safety time-out.
In a motion titled Keeping our Workers and Workplaces Safe, Mr Yong highlighted five areas for improvement that the labour movement is proposing to improve workplace safety and health practices.
PROTECT WHISTLE BLOWERS
One suggestion was to legislate the minimum number of rest hours for workers in high-risk sectors.
Even the most experienced of workers can fall victim to accidents if tiredness seeps in and causes a momentary lapse in concentration, said Mr Yong.
“If employers are pushing our workers to – quite literally work towards their deaths – then we must surely act to stop this,” he said.
Another suggestion was to establish safe and easy-to-use reporting channels for anyone to flag unsafe workplace practices.
He said MOM investigations into workplace fatalities often find that unsafe and unsupervised practices had been going on for a period of time.
“Those at the workplace would sometimes even say that is ‘normal practice’. In some cases, workers would tell us that the unsafe practices had been escalated to their supervisors, but nothing was done,” said Mr Yong.
“Tragically, the inaction can lead to someone dying from a preventable accident.”
There should be a better whistle-blowing channel that ensures the anonymity of whistle blowers, he said.
“We should make near-miss reporting more prevalent in the industry, as these are early warning signs of accidents to come,” he added.
To this, Senior Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad said that anyone, including members of the public, who witnesses safety lapses or poor safety practices “should not be afraid” to inform their management or report them to MOM.
“I wish to assure anyone who comes forward that there are existing safeguards to protect them. Their identities are kept confidential … Under the WSH Act, employers cannot dismiss or threaten to dismiss workers who have reported WSH contraventions,” he said.
He noted that the MOM hotline and e-feedback function are accessible to everyone, and information on these channels is displayed at construction worksites, shared online and on a mobile app for workers. MOM is also looking at adding the MOM feedback function into another government mobile app.
Mr Zaqy said: “MOM takes every report seriously. Out of 2,300 reports received in the past 12 months, around 62 per cent of the follow-up inspections resulted in enforcement actions taken.”
On having mandatory rest hours, Mr Zaqy said that there are existing protections under the Employment Act on the maximum hours that employees can work per day and per week, as well as the maximum number of overtime hours per month.
He also welcomed a suggestion made by Mr Yong for MOM to partner the unions to supplement routine inspections.
Mr Yong said that a company’s “culture at the top” shapes practices on the ground. Buy-in from higher management is vital workplace safety to be “pervasive” at the workplace, he said.
“Safety is a collective mindset. Beyond ensuring workers are well trained, we also need to ensure that supervisors and management are geared with the right WSH mindset,” he told the House.
Mr Zaqy agreed and said that MOM will gazette the Approved Code of Practice for Company Directors’ WSH Duties later this year.
MOM has completed the first round of industry consultation and will start public consultation this month on the Code, which will spell out WSH responsibilities for managements and boards.
“In the event of a WSH Act offence, the courts will consider the Approved Code of Practice when assessing the culpability of company leaders and its Board,” said Mr Zaqy.
“They can and will be prosecuted if found to be culpable for safety lapses.”
Mr Yong also touched on how technology can be used to detect and prevent workplace accidents, such as using sensors and wearables to alert management when there are lapses or accidents.
He said that some companies have already started to trial body-worn cameras for their workers and that this is something that should be encouraged.
“The cost of such technologies, however, can be prohibitive and it takes an enlightened management – usually large multinationals – to invest in them. We should help our SMEs adopt such technologies to improve their WSH outcomes,” said Mr Yong.
He suggested that MOM elevate the WSH Institute into a national WSH Centre of Excellence, which can focus on lowering the adoption cost of new technologies through demand aggregation and facilitate the deployment of such tools at SMEs.
“It is imperative that we do so as smaller companies cannot possibly hope to emulate the strong WSH practices of large companies without proper support,” he said.
Mr Zaqy said that SMEs can tap the Productivity Solutions Grant for WSH technology solutions and MOM will continue to encourage government agencies to include suitable WSH technology in public sector tender specifications.