Manpower Ministry to step up safety enforcement in construction industry

It will review its demerit point system and contractors that fail to improve their safety record can be barred from hiring foreign workers. Details of the review will be announced by the middle of this year, said Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Manpower Hawazi Daipi in Parliament


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Here is the answer by Mr Hawazi Daipi, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Manpower and Education, to Parliamentary Questions on improving Workplace Safety and Health outcomes in Parliament:

MP: Ms Foo Mee Har

To ask the Acting Minister for Manpower how the Ministry plans to strengthen and enforce safety measures at construction sites to prevent recurrence of workplace accidents which have led to nine deaths in the month of January 2014 alone.

NMP: Assoc Prof Tan Kheng Boon Eugene

To ask the Acting Minister for Manpower (a) whether there is a general malaise towards workplace safety and health among key stakeholders; and (b) what plans does the Ministry have to enhance workplace safety and health standards, norms and values among stakeholders beyond increasing penalties.

Answer:

Mdm Speaker, I would like to take the questions from Ms Foo Mee Har and Associate Professor Eugene Tan together. My Ministry shares the concern of the House over the recent spate of accidents in construction worksites. Let me first briefly update on the state of safety in the construction industry.

We have made steady improvements since we overhauled the national Workplace Safety and Health (or WSH) framework in 2005. Injury rates in the construction industry fell from over 1,200 per 100,000 employees in 2005 to around 480 per 100,000 employees in 2012. Similarly, the fatality rates dropped from 11.9 per 100,000 employees in 2005 to 5.9 per 100,000 employees in 2012.

However, starting from around second half of 2013, we began to see a decline in WSH performance. In those six months, there were 22 construction workplace fatalities. This was twice as many fatalities compared to the first half of the year, and 5 more compared to the same period in 2012. This worrying trend continued into 2014, with 8 out of the 9 workplace fatalities in January coming from the construction industry alone. MOM's stepped up inspections over the last two weeks of January uncovered 114 contraventions of the WSH Act at 89 construction worksites. A total of 7 Stop Work Orders, 45 Composition Fines and 69 Notices of Non-Compliance were issued.

Feedback from industry indicates that the recent spate in construction accidents could be due to two contributing factors. First, companies are rushing to complete construction projects on time, as the demand for construction activities continue to rise. Second, a tighter labour market could have contributed to companies overstretching their workforce. However, regardless of the constraints faced by the industry, there should not be any compromises where safety and lives are concerned.

Many of these accidents are preventable if rules and safety procedures provided in the law are followed. For example, legal obligations are imposed on contractors to engage Professional Engineers or PEs to design and supervise the erection of formwork systems for concrete structures with higher risk. This includes concrete structures that are more than 300mm thick or more than 9 metres high. The risk of formwork collapses can be avoided if PEs design the formwork adequately, ensures that the formwork structures built are inspected, and certify that they are safe for use before any concreting commences. I note that Ms Mary Liew had asked a related written question for which I would like to address here. In response to the series of formwork related accidents in January this year, my Ministry had issued an advisory to PEs to remind them of their obligations. My Ministry takes a firm stance to any contraventions by PEs, and will not hesitate to take them to task if they are found to have violated their duties under the WSH Act. We will also refer them to the PE Board for any possible contravention under the Professional Engineers Act.

To ensure that companies do not undertake work at the expense of the safety of their workers, my Ministry will adopt a multi-prong strategy on both the enforcement and regulatory fronts.

First, to provide adequate deterrence, my Ministry will continue to apply for stronger penalties for cases where there are serious breaches of the law. We have in severe cases obtained fines of up to $200,000 against employers who have failed in their duties. We will also ask for custodial sentences on individuals who have blatantly disregarded the law and press for maximum sentencing as allowed under the WSH Act for egregious cases.

Second, MOM will tighten the conditions for lifting of a Stop Work Order or SWO. This is to ensure that companies resolve specific as well as systemic lapses through the effective implementation of their WSH management system. New conditions for lifting the SWO may include the conduct of refresher training on key areas of weaknesses as well as re-audit of the WSH management system.

Third, we will expand the scope of the Business Under Surveillance (or BUS) Programme to more companies that require assistance to address serious systemic weaknesses in their WSH Management Systems. The BUS Programme is a strategic enforcement programme that targets poor performing companies for close monitoring and supervision. Companies in the programme will be required to thoroughly review their WSH system and processes, with their WSH performance closely monitored by the Ministry. Companies can exit from BUS only upon fulfilment of the action plan and demonstrate improvements in its WSH performance and management. To help these companies sustain their WSH improvements, MOM will start them on a WSH culture building journey, leveraging on the WSH Council's CultureSAFE programme.

Fourth, we will review and strengthen the Demerit Points System. The Demerit Points System was first introduced in 2000 to identify contractors with poor work practices and restrict their access to foreign manpower if there is no improvement in their safety records. Demerit points are issued to contractors or sub-contractors for breaches under the WSH Act and relevant subsidiary legislation. Information on the changes will be released after the review is completed by the middle of this year.

As we step up our enforcement actions, we will continue to extend support to smaller construction worksites through assistance programmes such as the Safety Compliance Assistance Visits (SCAV). The SCAV involves appointed WSH professionals visiting and providing onsite practical guidance at worksites. Last year, 800 SCAV visits were conducted and the industry has requested for more. My Ministry recognises the value and need for these services and will be doubling the number to 1600 SCAV visits this year.

Madam Speaker, these measures, while necessary, will not be effective without the involvement of all stakeholders in the construction value chain taking proactive ownership for workplace safety. These include the developers, designers, professional engineers, contractors, sub-contractors, project managers, supervisors and workers. The WSH Council, through its Construction and Landscape Committee, is proactively engaging all these stakeholders through various programmes to address this challenge together. One such initiative is Design for Safety, which involves the developers, designers and other project stakeholders working together from the start of the project to ensure that construction, maintenance and even demolition safety have been taken into consideration at the design stage, before construction even starts.

The Singapore Contractors Association Ltd or SCAL in short, has also implemented a SCAL Safety Site Visits programme where the more established contractors help educate the less established ones on how to manage safety at the worksites. This is done through briefings and site visits hosted by the more established contractors' worksites. Such an initiative bodes well for the industry and I encourage more contractors to participate in this programme.

Indeed, the involvement of the Developer is key to good WSH performance in a construction project. A good example can be seen in the construction projects for the London 2012 Olympics. From the onset of the projects, the developer, Olympic Delivery Authority (or ODA), set a goal of achieving "Zero Harm" and put in place several initiatives to align all project stakeholders towards the goal. As a result of the strong WSH commitment by ODA and collaborations with other stakeholders, the project achieved zero workplace fatality. This was the first Olympic construction programme to have achieved this and was not easy considering that an estimated 75,000 companies were involved in this mega project.

Allow me to conclude by reiterating that Workplace Safety and Health is everyone's responsibility. MOM will continue to work closely with the industry to raise WSH standards but we will take stern action against errant stakeholders.

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