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Speech at WSH Institute Forum – Bridging Knowledge, Broadening Horizons

Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for Health and Manpower, Raffles City Convention Centre

Mr Khoo Chin Hean
Chairman, Workplace Safety & Health Institute Governing Board

Distinguished speakers

Ladies and gentlemen,

  1. Good afternoon. I am delighted to join you at the 2015 Workplace Safety and Health (or WSH) Institute Forum on "Bridging Knowledge, Broadening Horizons".

    Prevention is Key to Safer Workplaces and Healthier Workforce
  2. In 2014, Singapore’s workplace fatality rate dropped to a record low of 1.8 fatalities per 100,000 employed persons. This is the lowest rate that we have achieved so far.

    It also means that we have met the WSH 2018 target of 1.8 fatalities per 100,000 employed persons. While this may seem like good progress, we must not forget the 60 workers who were killed last year and the grief and loss that their families will suffer for the rest of their lives. Every life lost or injury sustained is one too many.
  3. Even as we recognise the contributions made by all the stakeholders in achieving the good WSH performance last year, we have to ask ourselves this question: Can we sustain these WSH improvements and further reduce work-related injuries and ill health?
  4. We believe that prevention is key. If we can eliminate a WSH hazard right from the start, we can minimise the possibility of an injury or ill health happening. So, no hazard, no risk. No risk, no injury. When we talk about hazards, most of us will think about the immediate and obvious hazards around us – for example, a wet and slippery floor.

    These are common hazards for which there are good existing measures we can take to prevent accidents. But we need to think about the longer-term hazards – to better anticipate and prepare ourselves for future risks and for our future workforce and children to lead safer and healthier working lives. Today’s forum is an apt one as we collectively identify these new and emerging WSH risks; and discuss how we can make use of such information to improve the safety and health of our workers.
  5. Why is this capacity for early risk detection important? A case in point is asbestos. Asbestos was commonly used in construction for insulation and fireproofing purposes until the 1970s because of its abundance and many useful properties. It was only after much research that we determine exposure to asbestos dust can cause serious diseases such as lung cancer and mesothelioma, a condition where cancer cells form within the lining of the body’s internal organs.
  6. When it became clear that the use of asbestos can bring such harm to workers, nations round the world including Singapore took steps to minimise workers’ exposure to asbestos, by banning it as a construction material, and mandating work procedures that would ensure no harmful exposure to the substance. These have been in place since the late 1980s. By reducing workers’ exposure to asbestos, we have kept the number of asbestos-related illnesses low. However, it is too late for those who had unknowingly been exposed to the risks of asbestos. This is a grim example and we must learn from history and study how we can prevent potential injuries or ill-health through early risk detection.

    Setting up of an Observatory for WSH Landscape
  7. To enable early risk detection and intervention, we need to have the capacity for ongoing observation and analysis of the work landscape and its impact on WSH. 

    The Observatory for WSH Landscape, or OWL in short, launched today by the WSH Institute is intended to do just that. OWL will collect local and international data on new and emerging WSH risks, which it will then analyse to determine how it will affect workers’ wellbeing. The end product will be information that decision makers can act on to improve policies and direct WSH resources.
  8. Through OWL, the WSH Institute is positively contributing to improving WSH practices in Singapore. Let me cite three examples:

    a) First, research projects. "ConstructHealth" is a joint project between the WSH Institute and the Institute of Occupational Medicine Singapore to improve workplace health in construction-related industries. For the construction sector, safety has primarily been the focus. But a worker’s health is as important as his safety.

    This project will develop estimates of the number of cases of cancer and non-malignant respiratory diseases in Singapore that may be associated with work activities in the construction sector and construction-related activities in the marine sector1. We hope the study will provide insights into the incidences of these diseases in these activities and derive strategies to reduce its incidences.

    b) Second, predictive modelling. Together with the Ministry of Manpower and Deloitte, the WSH Institute is studying the use of predictive modelling to further reduce workplace injuries in construction worksites. This project aims to identify worksites that have a high likelihood of causing injuries, so that preventive measures can be taken.

    c) Third, establishing strong links with local and international partners.

    The WSH Institute has just formalised a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with IRSST2 – a WSH research institute in Canada, bringing the Institute’s number of international MOU partners to six3. These collaborative efforts mean that we are able to cover more sources of information and pool knowledge and experiences on WSH trends in Singapore and throughout the region. For the first time ever, the WSH Institute has brought together heads of WSH research institutes from both Europe and the Americas (called the Sheffield Group4) and the Asian Occupational Safety and Health Research Institutes group5 to discuss their experiences and expertise on the challenges faced in their respective countries, ranging from safety and health policies, workplace inspections to funding for WSH programmes. You will be able to hear more about their perspectives and identified WSH risks during the first session of today’s forum.
  9. For policy-makers, the information gathered will help you plan the allocation of resources to WSH more effectively. And for WSH practitioners, you can better pre-empt and understand the possible risks you may face at work and put the acquired knowledge into practice.

    Importance of safety and health in the workplace
  10. The second session of today’s forum will touch on the industry’s role in prevention. As most of you would have been aware, the Institute and WSH Council have been advocating Total WSH, an approach which places equal emphasis on the safety, health and well-being of our employees, and not just a singular focus on safety at work.
  11. This is increasingly pertinent as the workplace landscape is rapidly transforming through changes in technology, lifestyle and demographics. These changes bring about potential health problems that impact safety, and an employee’s ability to work.

    For example, with an ageing workforce comes issues such as chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension as well as ergonomic6 risk factors that contribute to musculoskeletal injuries7, like back injuries, which are becoming increasingly common8. If we do not manage these risks now, we will face future problems which may be harder or even impossible to solve.
  12. Companies play a big part in integrating the promotion of safety and health in the workplace. Natsteel, which has volunteered to take part in the pilot study on Total WSH, will be sharing their experiences from embarking on Total WSH later. I am sure you will find their sharing useful in implementing or refining the Total WSH approach taken in your company. Apart from Natsteel, you can also find out how Finland provides excellent Basic Occupational Health Services, their version of Total WSH, for their workforce.

    We hope the sharing sessions today will educate and inspire you to make changes to your workplace and improve the way you manage risks at work.

  13. I hope this forum will mark the start for future partnerships with leading WSH institutes in the region and the world. We look forward to seeing the outcomes these collaborations will yield. I wish everyone a fruitful forum, and a good afternoon ahead. Thank you.

1 Construction-related activities in the marine sector include shipbuilding and ship repair work, where workers can be at risk during the removal of asbestos-containing structures.
2 The Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail (IRSST), established in Québec since 1980, is a scientific research organisation renowned for the quality of its work and the expertise of its personnel.
3 The WSH Institute’s other international MOU partners are Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (FIOH), Institutfür Auslandsbeziehungen (IFA), Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL), U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and Korean Occupational Safety and Health Agency (KOSHA).
4 The Sheffield Group is a grouping of chief executives of different WSH research institutes in Europe, USA and Canada with annual meetings to exchange information, latest developments and challenges in occupational safety and health.
5 The Asian Occupational Safety and Health Research Institutes group (AOSHRI) comprises the occupational safety and health (OSH) research institutes from about 12 Asian economies. They meet every two or three years to discuss OSH-related research issues in Asia.
6 Ergonomic risk factors in the workplace include the force or intensity of work, the duration of work, the frequency of work repetition and work posture.
7 Musculoskeletal injuries or disorders are muscle, tendon or nerve disorders caused by repetitive exertions, rapid motions, awkward postures, high force contact stresses, vibrations or low temperatures.
8 From Jan 2014 – Jun 2014, there were 135 back injuries due to ergonomic risks, as compared to 94 the same period in 2013.