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Speech at bizSAFE Convention 2015

Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Minister for Manpower, Max Atria, Singapore Expo

Mr Lee Tzu Yang, Chairman, Workplace Safety and Health Council,

Ladies and gentlemen,

  1. Good morning. I am delighted to join you again at the annual bizSAFE Convention. I’ve been here for a number of years, and I would say that it’s always heartening to see the support from the industry. But we can always do better and we always wish more can get onboard and as I will share later, a lot of your effort and dedication has resulted in good results.
  2. I believe all of us, all employers, do want a safer and healthier workplace for their employees. No one wants to see their colleagues hurt at work, let alone killed. This time last year, as you would remember, before Chinese New Year, we were all rather alarmed by the spike of workplace fatalities in the construction sector. We took immediate measures and worked with stakeholders to rally the industry to improve their workplace safety and health (WSH) practices. I am happy to report that our collective action has reduced our workplace fatal injury rate to 1.8 per 100,000 employees in 20141, down from 2.3 in 2013. This is the lowest figure we have achieved and in fact, we have met the WSH 2018 target of 1.8 per 100,000 employees that was set in 2008. Well done to all!
  3. While I think that it is important for us to recognise and laud the effort, because it shows that with very deliberate efforts there can be positive outcomes, the question is, can we sustain this? Yes, we brought it down to 1.8, it is a good achievement, but can we sustain it? For the media, who’s looking for headlines I’m sure it’s a very positive headline but I think it’s very important that accompanying the headline, is the question of, is this sustainable? And it is also important for us to remember that 1.8 still translated to 60 lives that were lost last year.
  4. I don’t know if this is entirely appropriate but maybe at this convention next year we put up the photos of every worker who died, who they were, how many people were in their families and then suddenly that 1.8 data point would not seem so encouraging after all.
  5. We want to bring it down to zero. So it is not good enough. It is good effort but it is not good enough. We must, especially in the realm of workplace safety and health, endeavour desperately, earnestly, constantly everyday to ensure that nobody gets killed or injured. That is what we need to do.
  6. We therefore need to continue to identify the underlying issues, to address the causes of some of these incidents that continue to happen. We have improved some of the things we do, and we did it better. But to move away from this level and have this quantum leap down to zero, we need to transform the way we do things. It means that one, while we have gotten better at doing the things that we do, are there paradigm shifts that we need? It’s a bit like productivity, we can’t be doing more of the same things more efficiently. We need to re-engineer work processes, we need to re-engineer thinking processes, to ask ourselves, “can we bring it down even lower than 1.8, can we bring it down all the way to zero”?
  7. So one of the key challenges that we face is reaching out to Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) and helping them build capabilities to ensure that their workers are safe. There are about 180,000 SMEs in Singapore. It makes up 99% of the businesses in Singapore and accounts for 70% of our total workforce. If we are able to move that sector, it is going to have a significant impact on the wellbeing and safety of our people. While more than 20,000 of these SMEs have recognised the importance of WSH and are bizSAFE certified, the question is what about the other 160,000? It is critical that we get all SMEs on board if we want safer and healthier workplaces for all.

    A Safer and Healthier Workplace for Everyone
  8. It is perhaps not surprising that SMEs do not pay much attention to workplace safety and health. I think if you ask them, many of them intuitively want to look after their workers. They want to make sure that they’re safe. But just saying it and having that broad idea isn’t good enough. We need to then think about what we have to do. Workplace Safety and Health isn’t just about that initial desire to look after your people. It is about translating that desire to action. A WSH Institute study on SMEs leaders’ motivation and challenges in Workplace Safety and Health2 indicates that 63% of the SMEs had insufficient expertise in WSH. And 59% felt that it was costly to implement WSH measures.
  9. This is not right and shouldn’t be acceptable. We should think about how to rectify this. If we feel so strongly that our employees must go home safely and healthily every day, then I think it’s also for us, at the Government level, industry association level and company level to see how we can help SMEs overcome these challenges. Let me highlight how this can be done.

    Initiatives to help build industry capability
  10. We need to help SME build capabilities to undertake risk management of their operations. I think for many of you who have embarked on this, you have realised that this is not difficult to understand or start. For a first timer, it can sound technical, but risk management is really about knowing and addressing all possible risks in our work activities.

    Enhanced risk management
  11. The revised code of practice on risk management launched today will help companies better understand what risk management is and how to go about doing it. Revised based on our inspectors’ observations on the ground, the code of practice lays out principles and practical tips in undertaking risk management. Let me briefly highlight three key principles.
  12. Firstly, risk management must be implemented and communicated. It is not a paper exercise, like when a safety inspector comes, you tick the boxes and say that you did your risk management for today. You cannot merely go through motions for it to work. Every worker must understand the risks and their prevention measures in the things that they will be doing in the course of that day. Remember, what they don’t know, can hurt them. Which is why these risk management measures should not only be done, they should be communicated and internalised.
  13. Secondly, we must always try to first eliminate hazards in the first place. We do the risk management because there are certain risky activities. Well in the first place, can those risky activities be changed so that they’re not even risky in the first place? And only when this is possible, can we begin to take that quantum leap. And this involves re-engineering our processes. For example, when Daikin Air Conditioning, a recipient of the bizSAFE Partner Award3 installs air-conditioning, it will take into account the risk of installation at the proposed location. Where possible, it will consider relocating an outdoor condensing unit from the roof to the ground. In certain instances this is possible. This eliminates the risk of working at heights completely. I’m sure that while servicing the unit on the ground, there are also risks, but you certainly would have reduced the risk by re-engineering that process. And this is what we mean when we talk about making a significant quantum leap.
  14. This is not just for the WSH practitioners, it also applies upstream to the owners, developers, contractors. We think about not just the practical workflow, we think about a practical and safe workflow. Can we design that accordingly, and can we make that as part of our culture, just as we encourage being efficient and energy saving? Can we also place that same emphasis in designing workplaces that are safe, as well as green and efficient?
  15. Thirdly, we must consider all factors that can contribute to injuries and ill health. These include individual health conditions and work factors. This is one area that I would like us to take a step further and look at the health of our fellow workers. Would you, for example, let a sick crane operator who is sick and who is taking perhaps drowsy medication operate a crane? Should a taxi driver drive for prolonged hours without rest? Should there be some measures to encourage him to take a break, stop and rest? Ignoring health conditions at work environment can bring dire consequences.
  16. We had a case where a worker whose hearing has been affected due to work killed by a forklift. His impaired hearing could have caused him to be less aware of his surroundings. Were we sufficiently aware of his condition and the risk associated with it? If we were aware, were there steps that we could have taken to reduce the risk for that individual? Now you have an individual who has passed on and you have a family without a breadwinner, a father, a brother, a husband, a son.
  17. The WSH Council will do more to help SMEs implement risk management this year. For instance, you can find the revised START guide in your goodie bag today. It is a simple step-by-step guide for SMEs to start on WSH. Easy-to-understand collaterals on risk management such as do-it-yourself guides, posters, a video as well as a new training course to help companies implement Risk Management 2.04 will be developed. These new initiatives will be ready by the end of the year. So don’t stop providing your input and suggestions. Many of you are practitioners on the ground. You know what works and what doesn’t work. You know what materials are easy to understand and what isn’t. So give us your feedback on the materials.

  18. Second issue, funding. This is a serious challenge that SMEs face, especially the smaller ones. With so many things to juggle, SMEs may not consider WSH as their top priority. Here, Ministry of Manpower and WSH Council are working to lighten some of the financial burden. For example, companies can tap on the Singapore Workforce Development Agency’s subsidies to send their staff for training in bizSAFE level 2 and 4. Participants who fall under the Workfare Training Support are eligible for up to 90% subsidy of the course fees5. SMEs should tap on these funding schemes to improve WSH standards. The WSH Council also helps SMEs scan their workplaces for risks, and this is free. And when it’s free, better use it! Perhaps we can urge the associations and federations to see how they could step up and have an equivalent WSH wing that can also provide these advice and services.

    Start small, start today
  19. Ultimately, taking action to improve safety and health in the workplace starts with the individuals at the very top – the towkays and the bosses, do you believe that it is important? You cannot merely go through the motions, because your people will know it. When the workplace safety and health people are coming to inspect, you get everything ready. Then after that, you tick all the boxes and revert back to the norm. You may also send your people to courses, because there are 90% subsidies. They come back, motivated and equipped, and want to put it into practice but you don’t really bother and don’t give it your attention. After awhile, your staff also think, why bother? The boss himself is not interested.
  20. So it starts from the top and involves every individual. If the top does not bother but down the line you bother, well at least you can make the difference to your space and the people that you influence. So everyone can play a part regardless. Hopefully slowly, surely as more people come onboard, that change will happen. So it doesn’t matter if you don’t have the technical knowledge or not.
  21. I think it’s useful to end with a quote. And this is from Ms Hazel Yong, a recipient of the new bizSAFE Champion Award from Galmon (S) Pte Ltd. Let me quote her.
  22. “Most people think that in order to champion safety, you’ll need to have years of experience in the relevant industry. However, from my experience, being someone totally new to the field, I am able to make meaningful contributions to my company by looking at the organisation processes at different angles/perspective, identify the underlying issues and make changes or improvements to it. Everyone – no matter your age or experience – can and should have a safety mindset at work no matter the environment.”

  23. If we care enough, we will put in the effort and see where the risks are. Some of us here, unfortunately, would have had the experience of these losses at work. Major incidents. I think it changes the way you look at things in your company. But isn’t it a bit late to wait for that trigger to motivate us?
  24. Hazel has eloquently summarised my key messages, that we can and we must start today, even with a small step. We owe our employees that much to make sure that they go home safe and healthily each day. I would like to take the opportunity once again to thank everyone in the industry and beyond who has contributed in the many steps in bringing the fatalities down over the many years. But that is not good enough, we need to do better, to aim high to go lower. Because every statistical point isn’t just a digit. It is a life. I wish all of us “A Safer and Healthier Workplace”, this year. Thank you.

1Refer to Annex A for an overview of WSH statistic for 2014.
2Refer to Annex B for more information on the study.
3To find out more about the bizSAFE Awards, refer to Annex C.
4For more details on Risk Management 2.0, refer to Annex D.
5Eligible for up to 90% course subsidy, capped at $30 per hour for certifiable courses; and 90% course subsidy for Continuing Education and Training (CET) Centres’ courses. SMEs can also claim absentee payroll funding of 80% of basic hourly salary, capped at $7.50 per hour. For further details, refer to  

Annex A - Brief Overview of Workplace Safety and Health Statistics for 2014

Annex B - Study on Challenges and Motivations of SME Business Leaders In Leading Workplace Safety and Health

Annex C - Factsheet On bizSAFE Awards 2015

Annex D - Factsheet On Risk Management 2.0