Speech at Asbestos Forum
Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for Health and Manpower, Biopolis, Matrix Auditorium
Ladies and gentlemen,
- Good afternoon. I am pleased to join you at today’s Asbestos Forum, organised by the Workplace Safety and Health (or WSH) Council and Ministry of Manpower.
Importance of Workplace Health
- We often associate the lack of workplace safety and health with instances such as falls from heights and toppling of cranes. These incidents do grab the headlines, as the result in injuries or fatalities is immediate.
In comparison, the consequences of poor workplace health management, though potentially no less serious, may only become apparent many years later. Because occupational diseases can have a long latency period, their onset may occur long after the exposure has ceased. Hence, it is imperative that companies develop and implement a comprehensive approach to manage both safety and health issues at work.
Impact of Asbestos and Employers’ Responsibility
- An example of a workplace health concern is exposure to asbestos which is a major health hazard worldwide. It is a proven human carcinogen that can cause potentially fatal diseases such as malignant mesothelioma and lung cancer. It can also cause asbestosis, a chronic fibrotic disease of the lung for which there is no cure. Disease symptoms may take many years to develop following exposure. According to World Health Organization estimates, more than 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related diseases resulting from work exposure.
In Singapore, there have been 39 confirmed cases of work-related asbestosis and 63 cases of mesothelioma since 1970. These cases arise from past exposure to asbestos as far back as 20 to 40 years ago.
- Because of the serious health risk it poses, Singapore has put in place strict controls on the use and import of asbestos. For example, certain asbestos-containing products can only be imported with a license while the import of raw asbestos and use of asbestos-containing materials in buildings have been banned since the late 1980s. In 1995, the ban was extended to vehicle brake pads and clutch linings that contain asbestos. These control measures have significantly reduced the use of asbestos in Singapore.
- However, many old buildings, especially those built before 1990, may have asbestos-containing materials such as corrugated roofs, ceiling boards, floor tiling and partition walls.
When these materials are in good condition and undisturbed, there is no significant health risk. However, when disturbed, these materials can release asbestos dust into the air and affect building occupants and workers. This is why employers, contractors and occupiers must take steps to ascertain the presence of asbestos and whether any work processes involve asbestos, before commencing.
- The risk of asbestos exposure is not limited just to the construction sector during the removal of asbestos-containing materials when buildings are demolished or renovated. Other sectors are also at risk. For example, workers in the marine sector are at risk when removing asbestos from insulation material found on pipings and in a ship’s crew cabins.
- Asbestos-related diseases cannot be cured, but they are preventable.
As employers, you can prevent your workers from being exposed to asbestos, and ensure the safe and proper management of asbestos if it is present in the work environment. It is the right and responsible thing to do.
New Initiatives to Strengthen Management and Removal of Asbestos
- To this end, MOM will enhance the current regulatory framework for work involving asbestos by replacing the existing Factories (Asbestos) Regulations with the WSH (Asbestos) Regulations.
- These new Regulations are put together after three rounds of industry and public consultation conducted last year and are scheduled to take effect on 1 May 2014. Let me highlight three key aspects of these regulations.
- First, a proper plan of work, which includes a thorough risk assessment, must be undertaken prior to carrying out any work involving asbestos. Before commencing demolition or renovation works on buildings built before 1 January 1991, a competent person must be appointed to ascertain if asbestos-containing materials are present. This will help to protect workers from being unknowingly exposed to asbestos.
- Second, upon ascertaining that asbestos is present, it must then be removed before demolition can commence. The asbestos removal work can only be carried out by an approved asbestos removal contractor (or AARC) under the supervision of a competent person. This will ensure that workers carry out these work activities under proper management and protection. It will also prevent the release of asbestos fibres into the air which can affect the public.
- Third, the enhanced Regulations specify the technical requirements regarding the control measures for the removal and disposal of asbestos-containing materials. This is to minimise the release of asbestos and prevent the spread of asbestos beyond the work area.
- Many progressive companies have already taken steps to safeguard their employees’ health in line with the upcoming Regulations. Jova Marine Services, for example, not only ensures that its respirators are properly maintained and cleaned regularly, but also put its workers through a respirator fitting test before asbestos removal work. In addition, the company uses impermeable bags and containers to contain and dispose contaminated clothing and equipment. These bags and containers are also clearly labeled to prevent accidental exposure to asbestos.
In another company involved in asbestos removal work, Purenviro International, workers are trained on safe work practices to minimise asbestos exposure and reminded to wear full personal protective equipment at all times. The company also ensures that a comprehensive asbestos management plan is developed and implemented before work starts. This includes identifying all potential work hazards and setting asbestos working perimeters and enclosures.
Helping Industry Adapt to the New Regulations
- To support the industry in complying with the Regulations, MOM and the WSH Council will be implementing various initiatives.
- First, we have developed new WSH Guidelines on the Management and Removal of Asbestos. These guidelines will guide contractors and building owners about the proper management of asbestos-containing materials.
They will also advise industry practitioners about the correct work practices and WSH standards to adopt during asbestos-related work.
- Second, we have produced a video to educate stakeholders on the health effects of asbestos exposure. The video will illustrate examples where asbestos can be found and WSH measures to apply in the management and removal process. The guidelines and video will be put up on the Council website1 and I encourage all to make use of them once they are available.
- Third, we have developed two training modules on Survey Asbestos and Other Fibres Risks at the Workplace and Remove Asbestos from Workplace under the Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications (or WSQ) framework for Occupational Hygiene Professionals by the Singapore Workforce Development Agency.
This will help equip persons with the necessary knowledge and skills to conduct asbestos surveys, handle, remove and dispose asbestos safely and properly.
- We are also extending help to workers who have contracted asbestos-related diseases but may no longer be eligible to claim Work Injury Compensation, given the long latency period for these diseases. The Work Injury Compensation (Workers' Fund) Regulations was amended in 2013 to defray the medical expenses of affected workers or their dependants if the workers passed away.
- We need industry commitment for these measures to be truly effective.
- As employers, you have to make sure that your workers are well protected and trained to handle asbestos safely.
If you are unsure whether the building or material is asbestos-free, get it surveyed by a competent person. Put in place the necessary steps to prevent asbestos exposure. It is the right thing to do as a responsible employer and it will not just benefit your workers’ well-being but your own as well.
- I wish everyone a fruitful and successful forum. Thank you.
The resource materials will be available at the WSH Council website