Inquiry into SingTel fire: Focus on systemic issues

SingTel's committee of inquiry on the fire at its Bukit Panjang facility aims to prevent a similar incident, as well as decide how to discipline the employee who used an "unauthorised" blowtorch during "maintenance work" ("Human error to blame for fire at SingTel facility"; last Thursday).

Based on what was revealed, the key question in preventing a similar incident is how to stop workers from violating safety procedures.

It is easy to assume that imposing heavy penalties on the errant worker would create a strong deterrent effect.

However, it is more proactive to see violation as a systemic issue, where deviations from procedures are a result of weaknesses in policies, structures, processes and work culture.

The following questions should be raised: Why did the worker not follow the procedure? Was he under an unreasonable level of pressure to induce the violation? Are other workers doing the same thing? Are they adequately trained on the proper procedure? Did supervisors and managers constantly highlight the importance of following the proper procedure? Are there ways to make the work inherently safer? Did the top management take an interest in workplace safety and health?

In fact, these questions should be asked frequently and not only after major incidents. The constant awareness of major hazards is one of the characteristics of a top organisation and the basis for a positive safety culture.

The committee of inquiry should be aware that delving into the systemic issues requires the cooperation of front-line workers.

However, the threat of disciplinary action frequently creates fear among workers and reduces their willingness to share critical information.

Nevertheless, individuals need to be held accountable for their actions. The key is to have a fair and transparent investigation process that focuses on the systemic issues.

Goh Yang Miang, Reader

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