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Opening Address at The Singapore Workplace Safety and Health Conference 2018

Mrs Josephine Teo, Minister for Manpower, Suntec Singapore

Mr John Ng, Chairman, Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) Council,
Members of the WSH Council and Committees,
Members of the MOM International Advisory Panel for WSH,
Distinguished speakers, moderators and delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

  1. MOS Zaqy and I are glad to join you today at The Singapore WSH Conference 2018. Chairman of the WSH Council, John, has just shared that this year’s Conference is focused on the need to transform. Let me share more on Singapore’s WSH progress and three areas of transformation that the WSH ecosystem will need in the next decade.

    Progress in Singapore’s WSH journey
  2. As a nation, we have made good progress in our WSH journey. In 2008, we launched the WSH2018 Strategy to reduce our workplace fatal injury rate from around 3 to less than 1.8 per 100,000 employed persons by 2018.
    With the commitment of tripartite partners, the average rate over the last decade was 2.1 and declined further to 1.2 last year. This is the lowest ever recorded rate for our entire workforce, but is not yet a sustained level of performance.
  3. The progress is however encouraging. Human capital is Singapore’s only resource and we must aspire for our WSH standards to be among the best in the world. Therefore, we have challenged ourselves to further reduce and sustain our workplace fatal injury rate to less than 1 per 100,000 workers between now and 2028. In other words, over the next decade, we must aim to be among the leading countries in WSH performance. I must emphasise that this is actually a very ambitious target. From time to time, countries’ fatal injury rate has been able to dip below 1 per 100,000 workers. However, there are only four or five countries in the world that are able to regularly sustain a workplace fatal injury rate of less than 1 per 100,000 workers. Our International Advisory Panel members have reminded us of this very tall order and the ambitiousness of our goal. We are very mindful of it as well.

    The WSH2028 Strategy
  4. To make this happen, we convened a Tripartite Strategy Committee earlier this year to develop the WSH2028 Strategy, a comprehensive 10-year plan to bring Singapore towards WSH excellence. Chaired by John, the Committee has been working hard to consult the views of industry stakeholders and has already developed a set of preliminary recommendations. This was the focus of the lively and insightful discussion that MOS and I had with the International Advisory Panel yesterday.

  5. One major feedback from the Committee’s engagements with workers and WSH professionals was that some companies are still adopting a compliance mind-set, choosing to do the bare minimum for safety; or worse, meeting WSH requirements only “for show” during MOM inspections. Apart from the impact on human lives which should never be compromised, a lax approach to WSH is also commercially short-sighted, as unsafe work practices often lead to higher rectification costs, lower productivity and poor staff morale.
  6. Therefore, we need to transform the business environment into one which recognises WSH as an integral part of business success where good WSH is not “nice to have” but “must have”.
  7. To achieve this, one idea that the Committee has proposed is to increase the transparency of the WSH performance of companies. The objective is not so much to penalise the laggards but to encourage those who do well to keep up their efforts.
  8. The information could also allow goods and service buyers to compare their different WSH performance when making procurement decisions.
    This will give substance to the idea that good WSH is good for business, and promote greater ownership of WSH outcomes at all levels of the company, particularly at the top.

    Renewing focus on workplace health
  9. Another area that we need to transform is how workplaces manage the health of their workers.
  10. Traditionally, we have addressed the impact of work on the health of workers, for example, how excessive exposure to noise or chemicals can lead to occupational diseases. However, a less familiar dimension is how the health condition of a worker can impact safety and productivity at work. For example, workers with chronic conditions such as diabetes may experience dizziness or poor vision while handling machinery. This can lead to serious accidents and they may injure themselves or others.
  11. In April this year, I had announced that the WSH Council and the Health Promotion Board would collaborate to encourage companies to adopt a Total WSH approach by increasing companies’ access to Total WSH services. These services would improve both workers’ safety and health holistically.
    To complement our efforts in this area, the Committee has recommended to upskill existing WSH professionals to manage the interactions between work, safety and health.
  12. Today, these professionals are either experts in safety or health. We need to break these silos, and introduce bridging courses that will train WSH officers and occupational health professionals to integrate and manage both safety and health risks. This is a worthwhile effort which will not only expand the skillset of our professionals, but also enhance the wellbeing of our workers.
  13. In fact, as one IAP member reminded us, the workers themselves can be equipped with the knowledge to promote Total WSH at work. Employers would do well to engage the workers and their union to jointly tackle WSH challenges and improve WSH performance for the benefit of the workers and their business. This could include for example, joint analysis of near– miss reports with follow-up actions committed to by all parties.

    Using technology to advance WSH outcomes
  14. The third transformation involves technology. Major technological advancements in areas such as data analytics, sensors, Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence, and automation, present significant opportunities for us to advance WSH outcomes. Being at the forefront of technology innovation and adoption for WSH will help us to achieve the next breakthroughs in our WSH journey.
  15. With the help of sensors and IoT, we can augment our industries’ capabilities to monitor WSH situation on the ground on a real time basis 24/7. With the help of data analytics, employers can predict if a machine is going to break down and take pre-emptive actions for the benefit of businesses and workers. These advanced monitoring and management systems will not only lead to better WSH outcomes, but also increase productivity.
  16. Technology can also transform how WSH training is conducted.
  17. Virtual reality opens up the possibility of immersive training experiences where workers are confronted with WSH risks in simulated worksites. Workers will have a better sense of the real challenges they will encounter. Through the simulated responses of workers, employers will be able to get a better understanding of how prepared workers are. This is an area that is well worth considering and investing in.
  18. Traditional classroom training can evolve into one where bite-sized learning can take place beyond the physical classroom. Such “micro-learning” is not only convenient for adult learners, but is also particularly useful in developing good WSH habits through periodic reminders and learning.

    MOM’s transformation of our regulatory approach
  19. Within MOM, we have also started to transform our regulatory approach to promote greater ownership for WSH among companies. We have been doing extensive inspections to deter lapses and to highlight unsafe acts and practices to companies. But, we must find better ways to get companies to improve safety without having to inspect each and every one all the time.
  20. Last year, we tested different ways to inspect based on design thinking and behavioural insights.
  21. Our inspections have predominantly been surprise visits without prior engagement. We tried something different - to inform companies with poorer safety records of their safety performance relative to others in their industry. So, we wrote to these companies and told them, based on what we have found in the past, this is where you stand relative to your peers in the industry and we wanted to understand what responses they would have. Their reactions were very interesting.
  22. Many bosses had not realised that they fared poorly compared to their peers. Our inspectors were pleased to see them express a strong desire to improve. This may of course be helped by the fact that we also declared our intentions to inspect them soon.
  23. Through this experiment, we found that the combination of benchmarking information and commitment to strict enforcement helped to focus minds. It encouraged the company management to reassess safety practices in all their worksites, and take greater ownership of their own WSH standards.
  24. It has also introduced a new dimension to our inspections. i.e. it’s not just to uncover lapses, but to motivate improvement. The message is that laggards must catch up and even those who are good can be better. Therefore, we will scale up this new approach to foster a stronger culture of continuous improvement in WSH performance.

  25. In closing, this Conference is a useful platform for us to share our WSH challenges and brainstorm innovative ideas to fulfill our shared future of a healthy workforce in safe workplaces.
  26. MOM is committed to work with tripartite partners to level up our WSH ecosystem. The Committee will share its preliminary recommendations for the WSH2028 Strategy tomorrow, and I am confident that the views of our International Advisory Panel and our distinguished audience will provide useful feedback to refine the proposals further.
  27. I wish everyone a fruitful WSH Conference 2018.