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Workplace Safety and Health (Amendment) Bill 2017 Second Reading Speech at Parliament

Minister of State Sam Tan

  1. Mr Speaker, on behalf of the Minister for Manpower, I beg to move, ‘That the Bill be now read a second time.’

    WSH journey – Need to keep improving
  2. Singapore has made steady progress in our workplace safety and health (or WSH) journey. A new WSH Framework was launched in 2005 following the occurrence of several major workplace accidents including the Nicoll Highway collapse in 2004. Under this framework, the regulatory regime was strengthened through the enactment of the Workplace Safety and Health Act (WSH Act) in 2006. We stepped up efforts to work with industry and tripartite partners to develop WSH capabilities and raise WSH awareness on the importance of safety and health. Together with our tripartite partners, we set a target to reduce our workplace fatality rate from 3.1 per 100,000 workers in 2006 to less than 1.8 per 100,000 workers by 2018.
  3. Through the collective efforts of the industry and tripartite partners, the workplace fatality rate fell to 1.9 in 2016. Our WSH 2018 target is now within reach, but we cannot be complacent. We should strive to do even better. I have said it many times but it bears repeating - every life lost is one too many. We must therefore double our efforts to entrench the right WSH mindset, eradicate unsafe and unhealthy work practices, and enhance WSH capabilities to create safe and healthy workplaces for all.

    What we have learnt – Prevention is key
  4. Our WSH journey over the last decade has taught us that all workplace injuries and ill-health are preventable with the full commitment of every stakeholder – employers, workers, unions and the government. We need a stronger emphasis on preventing harm from ever occurring. Prevention is key to achieving safe and healthy workplaces for everyone. There are three areas where we can strengthen the culture of prevention:
    a. First, we need to prevent the occurrence of unsafe work practices and health risks at work.
    b. Second, should an accident happen, we need to prevent its recurrence, especially for accidents that are complex, involving risks that are not well-understood and have the potential for serious harm.
    c. Third, we need to prevent workplace safety and health training courses from becoming outdated.

    Preventing occurrence of unsafe work practices and health risks at work
  5. First, on preventing occurrence of unsafe work practices and health risks at work. When the WSH Act was enacted to replace the then-Factories Act in 2006, the penalty framework to deal with offenders was significantly enhanced. The maximum fine was raised by 2.5 times from $200,000 to $500,000 under the WSH Act. In cases where it is a repeated offence resulting in death, the maximum fine for corporate offenders can go up to $1 million.
  6. Last year, the High Court laid out a framework to guide sentencing for WSH Act offences that took into account the level of culpability, severity and potential harm. The State Courts have since imposed higher penalties in prosecutions under the WSH Act. For example, SMRT was fined $400,000 for systemic failures resulting in the deaths of two employees this year. The higher penalties under the WSH Act have played a part in underscoring the seriousness of WSH offences. However, these penalties have mostly been applied to WSH offences when serious harm has already occurred. While we can penalise the companies, it is already too late for the injured or deceased workers and their families. Prevention is still the better option to protect unnecessary loss of lives and livelihoods.

    Clause 7(c) to prevent unsafe work practices before accidents happen
  7. To strengthen the culture of prevention, we need to send a stronger signal that unsafe work practices and exposure to health risks are unacceptable, even when there are no accidents. Through our inspections, we uncover a wide spectrum of WSH offences every year. For minor offences that are unlikely to cause harm, we issue warnings and require rectification of the WSH lapses. However, there have been instances where no harm has occurred, but the companies have shown disregard for basic safety and health requirements. If we had not discovered them during our inspections, it would be a matter of time before they result in serious harm.
  8. For example, during one of our routine inspections last year, we found a worksite with multiple open sides in different locations close to where workers were deployed, exposing workers to risk of falling from height. There were also other lapses such as electrical hazards and tripping risks. These were serious accidents waiting to happen, and were averted only by sheer luck.
  9. Mr Speaker, Sir, we should not allow our workers’ lives to be determined by luck. Currently, we issue composition fines and Stop Work Orders for such serious cases of offenders where no harm has occurred. However, we have seen a doubling of such cases from 13 in 2013 to 26 in 2016. We need to take a tougher deterrent stance and prosecute them under the WSH Act Subsidiary Legislation, including first-time egregious offenders.
  10. For the Subsidiary Legislation (SL) prosecution to have effective deterrent value, the SL penalties should be increased. Clause 7(c) of the Bill will therefore raise the maximum penalty under the Subsidiary Legislation by 2.5 times from $20,000 to $50,000. This is consistent with the 2.5 times increase in the maximum penalty under the WSH Act, from $200,000 to $500,000, which was enacted in 2006. We will apply the $50,000 maximum fine to Subsidiary Legislation offences that may cause or result in death, serious injury, or dangerous occurrence. They account for about 80% of all SL offences now, mostly with a maximum fine of $20,000. Some of these offences include failure to have protective structures, such as barriers at open sides or around excavations to prevent falls, and failure to appoint authorised persons to supervise hazardous works, thereby exposing workers to danger that may result in death or serious injury.
  11. I want to assure the House that my Ministry will remain judicious in our enforcement approach. Even as we raise the maximum fine under the Subsidiary Legislation for the majority of offences, the penalties we seek will be calibrated based on factors such as the culpability of the offender, the severity of harm that could have resulted, and the likelihood of harm. We will only prosecute the most egregious cases where the offenders have ignored the safety and health of workers and serious harm is likely to occur.

    Clause 3 to prevent recurrence of accidents, involving risks with the potential for serious harm that are not well-understood
  12. Second, to prevent recurrence of complex accidents, where the risks are not well-understood, and have the potential for serious harm, and could be present in other companies, we need to ensure timely sharing of learnings from the investigation into such accidents. The learnings are needed not just to raise awareness of safety and health risks, but to provide recommendations on how to eliminate or mitigate the risks.
  13. Currently, case facts of complex accidents are released only after the conclusion of criminal proceedings, which could take around 3 years from the time of accident. This is done so as not to prejudice the outcome of legal proceedings. However, the learning value to industry is delayed, and the risk of such an accident recurring persists for a longer period of time.
  14. We believe timely and early sharing of case facts and recommendations with industry is important to prevent recurrence. Clause 3 of the Bill will therefore allow the Commissioner for Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) to release a learning report before legal proceedings have concluded. Learning reports will not be released for all accidents, but only where the Commissioner for WSH considers it necessary in the interest of the public, particularly for those where the risks were not so well-understood, and have the potential for serious harm, and could be present in other companies.
  15. The learning report is not intended to apportion blame or liability, but simply to allow other companies to learn from the accident and take immediate steps to avoid similar circumstances. To safeguard the interests of the parties involved, learning reports will be inadmissible in any civil, criminal, disciplinary, arbitral or work injury compensation proceedings.
  16. The learning report will only contain information necessary for learning value. We do not intend to name companies or individuals, and there will be no statements of liability in the report. To further allay industry concerns over unwarranted reputational damage or unintended disclosure of intellectual property, we will establish a process to consult relevant parties on the draft report before publishing.
  17. Allowing the release of information for the sole purpose of learning, without attributing blame or liability is not new, and has been adopted in other situations and countries. For example, investigation reports by the Transport Safety Investigation Bureau (or TSIB) under the Ministry of Transport are published for the sole purpose of accident prevention, and their reports are also inadmissible in any civil or criminal proceedings.
  18. The United States Chemical Safety Board (or CSB) and the United Kingdom Rail Accident Investigation Branch (or RAIB) also release accident investigation reports focused solely on improving safety and not to apportion blame or liability. Accident investigation reports by the CSB and the RAIB may also be issued whether or not civil or criminal proceedings are in progress. These reports and lessons learnt have enhanced industry’s understanding of specific areas of risk. Many of these safety recommendations by CSB and RAIB have been implemented by industry, resulting in safer chemical facilities, safer transport and safer communities.

    Clauses 4 and 5 to prevent workplace safety and health courses from becoming outdated
  19. To sustain improvement in our WSH performance, a workforce competent and skilled in managing workplace safety and health is critical. Over the years, MOM has worked with the industry to define standards and guide the design of WSH-related courses. Annually, over 150,000 workers are trained in basic safety orientation courses offered by about 80 training providers, accredited under the Approved Training Provider (ATP) scheme by MOM.
  20. As the industries undergo transformations to create new and better jobs, we need to ensure that WSH courses remain up to date with the latest content and training methods. As part of this effort, we have been working very closely with SSG and the WSH training industry to align the current WSH courses to the national Workforce Skills Qualification (WSQ) system and transfer the accreditation of WSH training providers to SSG. So far, 23 courses have now been developed under the WSQ system and offered by SSG-accredited training providers. We expect the migration of the remaining 33 courses to be completed by 2019.
  21. Under the SSG accreditation system, training providers are not only required to ensure that their teaching content is relevant to the industry, but also that their teaching methods are up to date. For example, training providers are expected to leverage technology such as Virtual Reality and use innovative learning approaches to enhance the quality and effectiveness of learning. This helps to make learning more engaging and will lead to better WSH learning outcomes.
  22. With SSG being the single authority to accredit all WSH training providers by 2019, Clauses 4 and 5 are consequential amendments to remove the requirement for the Commissioner to accredit WSH training providers.

    Clause 6 to align personal liability protection with that in similar laws
  23. We are also taking this opportunity to update the personal liability protection provision in the WSH Act by bringing it in line with the protection provided to inspectors or enforcement officers in other legislation.
  24. Currently, the personal liability protection for inspectors under the WSH Act is limited to equipment damages due to a prescribed examination or test, and the Commissioner’s and Deputy Commissioner’s duties in relation to a remedial order or stop-work-order.
  25. Clause 6 will extend the scope of personal liability protection to the Commissioner, Deputy Commissioner, inspectors and authorised officers for acts done in good faith and with reasonable care in carrying out their duties under the WSH Act properly and professionally. This is similar to the personal liability protection provision under other legislation such as the Fire Safety Act, and the Environmental Protection and Management Act.
  26. Nonetheless, I would like to reassure the House that protection will only be extended to inspectors and authorised personnel and officials who have exercised reasonable care and consideration in the execution of their duties under the WSH Act. The Government and its officers remain liable for negligent acts or for acts beyond their legal powers.

    Conclusion
  27. The adage “Prevention is better than cure” remains relevant in the area of workplace safety and health. These changes will further strengthen the foundation for a stronger prevention mindset, and are important steps as we move towards our next target of reducing workplace fatality rate to less than 1 per 100,000 workers before 2028. Countries including Germany and the United Kingdom, which have put together greater emphasis to entrench a culture of prevention, have already achieved this lower fatality rate. There is much we can learn from them.
  28. Enacting progressive WSH legislation is necessary but insufficient. Over the next few months, we will engage our tripartite partners and industry stakeholders to co-develop the WSH 2028 national strategy for the next decade. Collectively, we will identify WSH challenges ahead, chart directions and develop key strategies to make Singapore one of the safest and healthiest workplaces in the world. This will be a very big challenge, but together with our tripartite partners and industry stakeholders, I believe we will be able to achieve it.
  29. I ask all Members of this House for their support of the Bill. Sir, I beg to move.
Last Updated: 07 November 2017