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Speech at Singapore Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) Conference 2012

Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, Suntec Singapore

Mr Seiji Machida, Director of SafeWork, International Labour Organisation
Mr Heng Chiang Gnee, Acting Chairman, Workplace Safety and Health Council
Members of the International Advisory Panel for Workplace Safety and Health,
WSH Council members and industry leaders,
Distinguished guests and participants of the Singapore WSH Conference 2012, 

  1. Thank all of you for participating in this second biennial Singapore Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) Conference.
  2. Mr Heng Chiang Gnee, Acting Chairman of the WSH Council, has just spoken of the multi-faceted challenges we face in ensuring workplace safety today, all over the world. The landscape we are operating in is indeed evolving.

    New Challenges in Workplace Safety and Health
  3. Let me therefore start by briefly highlighting a few global trends, that affect how we look at WSH issues and working life:

    - the evolution in the structure of economic activity;
    - the increasing participation of older workers;
    - the continuing advance of technology;
    - the implications of the global economic slowdown
  4. The first trend is already far advanced in several developed countries. They have evolved from labour-intensive, manual and often pollutive activities to a mix of cleaner, technology-intensive industries and high-value services. What this typically means is a reduction in the number of people involved in traditional high-risk sectors. The incidence of fatal accidents is gradually decreasing, as has been our experience in recent years in Singapore. In addition, companies increasingly have to compete for employees by offering a safe and congenial work environment.
  5. The second trend is the ageing population profile in most developed economies. People are living longer. They are also working for longer, so as to avoid a situation where they run out of savings. In some countries, notably Japan, the reasons are not merely financial. There are numerous accounts in Japan of how older workers prefer to stay in the workforce in order to remain active and feel usefully occupied. Japan's employment rate for those aged 55 to 64 is over 65%, the highest amongst the advanced economies.
  6. In Singapore, the employment rate for workers in this 55 to 64 age group has risen from 44% in 2001 to about 59% in 2010. For our women especially, there is potential for labour force participation to trend up further towards developed country levels as the education profile of older female workers keeps improving. However, it is for employers to respond by ensuring that the workplace is friendly and safe for older persons, so that they have a meaningful and fulfilling choice to remain actively employed. In economies like that of Singapore, where there is a permanent shortage of workers, companies now have a compelling reason to do invest in these improvements.
  7. The safety and health demands of older workers can be very different from those of a younger workforce. In some instances, companies which have refashioned the work environment through advanced tools, the use of IT or introduction of ergonomically-superior workstations, have found that it breeds not just satisfaction amongst older employees, but higher productivity. BMW's plant in Lower Bavaria is one example - and I understand BMW has since sought to bring its elderly worker-friendly innovations to several of its other plants internationally. It is a profitable strategy.
  8. The third global trend that I want to highlight is that of technological and scientific advances. New technologies may bring their own risks, some of them as yet unknown. However, science allows us to be proactive about avoiding problems tomorrow. We certainly do not want to have the disasters that we have had in the past, around the world: for example, millions inflicted by cancers caused by asbestos being used liberally in workplaces, before its inherent risks were uncovered. Research is ongoing internationally on the potential risks of new materials such as nano materials, so that problems if any can be anticipated and measures taken to avoid them.
  9. A fourth trend is simply that of economic slowdown in the advanced world, and in the global economy. There is in fact a real risk in many countries, of a protracted slowdown leading to businesses scaling back investments in workplace safety and health as they try to protect their balance sheets. This would be short-sighted. Evidence shows that companies who do so often end up with bigger problems. Poor safety and health management lead to accidents, as well as difficulties in attracting qualified workers.
  10. Over the years too, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has consistently found that countries which have superior safety and health practices also outperform other countries in competitiveness rankings. In other words, safety, health and a worker-centred workplace is a competitive advantage.

    A safe and healthy company sees better performance
  11. Certain fundamentals underpin our efforts, whatever the national context, and whichever the sector or company.
  12. Employers must look after their people. It is their most basic responsibility to make sure that everyone is able to return home to their family safe and sound, everyday. Serious accidents are almost always avoidable, and always inflict a high cost. The most important cost is to the people who lose their limbs or lives, and their families who are deprived of a breadwinner and loved one.
  13. Accidents are also costly to the company involved, which not only suffers immediate financial impact, but also longer term damage to its reputation.
  14. Further, improving workplace safety and health is both the right thing to do for our people, and a way to raise employee satisfaction and productivity. It also gives older workers a meaningful choice of staying actively employed for longer, as I highlighted earlier.
  15. Innovations in WSH, and building a strong WSH culture, must therefore be a key priority for all businesses.
  16. One example is 2011 WSH Award winner Gammon Construction Pte Ltd, which invested in the Wet Excavation Method. Conventional deep and wide excavation works in soft ground is a highly hazardous activity. Workers carrying out such work are exposed to hazards including falls from height, being hit by falling objects and the possibility of the trench collapsing. Recognising these hazards, Gammon Construction Pte Ltd came up with an innovative approach; using water and technology to support the deep excavation and its retaining walls. This method has greatly reduced the exposure of workers to risks.
  17. This novel WSH solution enabled Gammon to reap real benefits in terms of safe and timely completion, environmental sustainability and costs. Required man-hours were reduced by 77% - from more than 38,000 man-hours to just about 9,000 man-hours. It is an example of how innovation can improve safety while increasing productivity.
  18. We must encourage many more businesses to move from a reactive to a proactive or preventive mindset. The Ministry of Manpower has been working with the WSH Council to share statistics and useful examples of how local innovations in WSG work out well for workers and companies. (More examples of how companies make innovative and simple improvements to their work processes can be found from the trove of references at the WSH Council's website)
  19. To deepen all our stakeholders' understanding of emerging trends and their implications for WSH, the WSH Institute was set up last year to translate knowledge into evidence-based solutions for the industry.
  20. The Institute is also collaborating with the UK's Health and Safety Laboratory to develop in-depth empirical studies to track and quantify the benefits local companies have gained from implementing safety and health initiatives, or lost due to the lack of it.

    CultureSafe – Transform mindsets and behaviours
  21. Since Singapore implemented a performance-based WSH regime - emphasizing risk management capabilities - we have seen a steady decline in our workplace fatality rate from 4.9 deaths per 100,000 employed persons in 2004, to 2.3 last year. The injury rate similarly fell from 519 per 100,000 employed persons in 2004 to 387 last year. Many industry players have played an active and responsible role.
  22. However, we have to improve further. We are committed to make Singapore one of the safest and healthiest workplaces in the world, with a workplace fatality rate of less than 1.8 by 2018. It is a vision worth striving for, because it makes all the difference in the world to the families of our workers.
  23. To achieve this, we have to embark on the next phase in our WSH journey – that of transforming mindsets and creating a pervasive and progressive culture that places workers' safety and health first.
  24. The WSH Council has therefore introduced a "CultureSAFE" initiative. It seeks to aid companies to move deliberately and systematically on a journey: from a reactive, "fix-it-and-repair" mentality to a proactive and preventive approach to safety and occupational health; and further up, from proactive to being progressive companies, who reengineer and refashion the workplace not merely to comply with the rules and laws but to serve the needs and interests of their people. CultureSAFE will also help companies reach the highest tier - being exemplary, and demonstrating leadership within an industry in Singapore and abroad.
  25. The development of this CultureSAFE model has taken a few years, and has gone through many rounds of industry validation. The International Advisory Panel for WSH had also given their strong affirmation to this initiative when they met last year.
  26. The Government will support the WSH Council in this programme, focusing on helping small and medium enterprises (SMEs) embark on CultureSAFE so that they can raise WSH standards and thereby productivity. The Government will provide $8 million to co-fund the cost of the CultureSAFE programme for interested SMEs over the next 3 years. This CultureSAFE Fund will co-fund up to $30,000 for each company to cover consultancy and implementation costs for their CultureSAFE journey.

  27. I urge all business leaders, professionals, workers and government officials to walk together on this journey. To be a vibrant global city, we must ensure that work is safe, decent and fulfilling for all workers. Every worker must be able to trust the workplace and feel good about it; to build up their abilities over time; to remain employable as they grow older; and to enjoy retirement without work-related illnesses.
  28. Thank you, and I wish you a fruitful conference.