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Speech at Opening Ceremony of APOSHO 23

Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Manpower and Second Minister for Defence, Suntec Convention Centre

Mr Tan Jin Thong,
President of the National Safety Council, Singapore and Chairman of the 23rd Asia Pacific Occupational Safety & Health Organisation

Distinguished guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

I am pleased to join you for the opening ceremony of the the 23rd Asia Pacific Occupational Safety and Health Organisation Seminar and Exhibition, or APOSHO for short. Let me especially bid foreign visitors a warm welcome to Singapore.

2.   Starting with only six members, APOSHO has now grown to 35 members across 26 countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Members meet annually to share experiences and exchange ideas in the field of occupational safety and health. This year, the two-day conference has attracted about 300 delegates, comprising professionals, researchers and regulators. APOSHO's growth reflects expectations for  higher safety standards at the workplace in the Asia-Pacific region.

Working Together to Raise OSH Awareness

3.   There is a marked disparity in safety standards and outcomes among countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Leading the pack are countries like Australia, Japan, the US and Singapore which have a good infrastructure in place to improve occupational safety and health standards. These include a strong regulatory framework, structured learning for all levels of staff, effective outreach activities and analysis capabilities. At the other extreme are countries where a system to achieve basic safety standards is not even in place. Workers work in less than ideal conditions and are not well protected from workplace risks.

4.   Given this wide variance in safety standards, economic resources, legal frameworks and cultural practices, it is unlikely that a one-size-fits-all solution will apply. Each country must find the most cost-efficient way to better protect workers in a sustainable and progressive manner. Forums like today's session provide a valuable platform to share information. We can also learn from countries outside the Asia Pacific region which have achieved better safety outcomes.

Learning from the best

5.   When Singapore set out to revamp our occupational safety and health framework in 2005 to achieve quantum improvements, we visited Sweden, UK, France and Germany. We looked at their safety framework to learn generic lessons but were careful to take specific practices only when we were sure it would be workable in our system. We adapted practices that best suited our environment. My Ministry studied the outcome-based approach that these countries had adopted more than 10 years ago, and how these have led to significant progress in occupational safety and health performance.

6.   By learning from them, Singapore was able to move from a prescriptive approach to a performance-based framework in which my Ministry sets outcomes but allows stakeholders the flexibility to decide how best to achieve these outcomes. But even then, we did not take wholesale the implementation norms for a performance–based framework. We were careful not to be locked into any purist ideological stance but chose to be practical and retained or adapted certain practices that industry stakeholders found useful. Basically, we chose what worked best. This practical approach has yielded results. Since the framework was introduced two years ago, work fatalities have fallen from 4.9 per 100,000 workers in 2004 to 3.1 in 2006 – a reduction of over 30% in two years.

Industry and Government work hand-in-hand

7.   One key and generic lesson learnt was that safety and health outcomes could only be improved if industry and other stakeholders took responsibility for safety and health outcomes. Governments as regulators and workers will always wish for better standards but without the commitment of employers and businesses, improvements are likely to be slow. So, in 2005, we formed the Workplace Safety and Health Advisory Committee – an industry-led Committee that would provide strong leadership in developing greater industry participation and ownership. The Government provided assistance but it was this Committee that formulated Singapore's 10-year strategy plan for workplace safety and health. It was the right approach and explained why the Committee could rally some 52,000 industry stakeholders to pledge their commitment to workplace safety and health during this year's National Workplace Safety and Health Campaign.

8.   These positive outcomes have given us confidence that this indeed is the direction to take long term. To enable the Advisory Committee to take on an even bigger role, I recently announced that it will be stepped up to an executive Council next April with some statutory powers.

Sharing experiences with our neighbours

9.   In this globalised World, workers move in and out of many countries. They carry with them different norms and standards of acceptable practice. Thus, it is to our interest to ensure that the tide for safety outcomes is lifted steadily in this region. Here again, information sharing plays an important roles. Singapore hosted the 19th ASEAN Labour Ministers' Meeting in May last year, which focused on Occupational Safety and Health as an important area for co-operation. In January this year, my Ministry hosted the "ASEAN Policy Dialogue on National OSH Frameworks and Management Systems", which provided a platform for ASEAN member countries to discuss pertinent challenges and developments. Following the dialogue, the ASEAN Plan of Action on National OSH Frameworks was adopted for all ASEAN countries to publish national OSH profiles and develop national OSH programmes by 2012. This illustrates how the regional sharing of experiences can facilitate cooperation and raise standards.

Working together to build a stronger culture through Safe Community

10.   Talk to safety experts and all will agree that for a workplace safety culture to root, safety consciousness and awareness must permeate throughout the community. It must start from the top but it must also reach the last worker, that weak link in the chain. Otherwise, accidents and deaths will still occur. Building a safety culture takes effort and persistence. We want to be a "Safe Singapore", where it becomes second nature and instinctive to adopt safe practices. I am therefore pleased to announce that the National Safety Council will be spearheading Singapore's efforts to be designated a "Safe Community" by the World Health Organisation's Collaborating Centre on Community Safety Promotion. Being designated a "Safe Community" signals a community's commitment and holistic approach to prevent injury and accidents. Currently, there are 127 "Safe Communities" across 20 countries with a similar number awaiting accreditation.

11.   I believe the vision of  a "Safe Singapore" is an achievable one but what will it mean for Singaporeans? Let us look at the example of Wellington in New Zealand. Designated a safe community since last year, Wellington has implemented a broad -ranging programme targeting many areas such as home safety, traffic safety and occupational safety. For children aged 14 and below, Wellington put in place programmes to encourage the use of child restraints in cars and operates school patrols to provide safe road crossings near schools, among others. For youths aged 15 to 24, programmes focused on preventing violence, reducing alcohol and drug abuse. For adults, individuals are educated on how to identify and reduce risks at home, work and in sports. For senior citizens, the emphasis is on enhancing their accessibility, with even tai chi classes offered to improve mobility.

12.   Wellington's experience gives us an idea of how wide-ranging "Safe Community" initiatives can be and the benefits it will bring to the nation at large. To kick start the "Safe Community" initiative, the National Safety Council has formed a multi-agency working group - including my Ministry, the WSH Advisory Committee, the Land Transport Authority, the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Education, the People's Association through the Central Singapore Community Development Council and Motorola Singapore. The working group will look into areas such as workplace safety, traffic safety, community safety and promoting corporate social responsibility. Pilot projects will be identified by early next year, with another three years expected for accreditation. I urge more organisations to join the National Safety Council and be part of this worthwhile effort.

Concluding remarks

13.   On this note, I would like to thank the National Safety Council for its efforts in organising the APOSHO conference. I wish all of you a meaningful and fruitful conference and all delegates a pleasant stay in Singapore. On this note, I am happy to declare the APOSHO conference open. Thank you.