Senior Minister of State for Manpower Mr Zaqy Mohamad's Closing Address at the Workplace Safety and Health Conference 2020
Mr John Ng, Chairman of Workplace Safety and Health Council,
Our International Advisory Panel members,
Distinguished Conference speakers, moderators and delegates.
1. As the WSH Conference 2020 draws to a close, I would like to thank all our speakers for sharing their valuable insights, our moderators for keeping the panel discussions abuzz and also, to all of you who have taken time off your busy schedule over the last two days to be with us. I hope it has been a fruitful two days.
Adapting to the New Normal
2. The pandemic has had a massive impact on the global economy and has brought about unprecedented challenges for businesses. More than ever now, businesses need to be flexible and adaptive to operate and sustain in the new normal. For example, those in non-essential service sectors had to adopt technology to facilitate work-from-home arrangements.
3. With the workplace moving into homes and online spaces, WSH must also adjust to address new perspectives and concerns that may emerge.
4. The themes in the WSH Conference were also covered in our discussion with our International Advisory Panel members a few weeks ago. Our panel told us that safety and health authorities around the world are indeed grappling with these issues.
Strengthening workplace resilience against infectious diseases
5. The first theme is that the “H” in WSH has to go beyond the traditional focus on occupational health, to also preserving health against infectious diseases.
6. Minister for Manpower Mrs Josephine Teo said yesterday that the pandemic has led us to a renewed focus on workplace health. The impact of COVID-19 on workplaces and their ability to continue with business drives home the urgency to incorporate health concerns into our WSH processes. Our WSH Council Member and Occupational Medicine specialist Dr Gan Wee Hoe also highlighted that Singapore’s WSH strategies have shifted from preventing injuries and occupational diseases, to also include workforce health. He shared how Total WSH needs to address challenges brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the future of work, and the impact of a more serious pandemic (i.e. Disease X), on the workforce.
7. Given the risk of a future infectious “Disease X”, which may be even more infectious and lethal than COVID-19, the IAP recommended that MOM build on its experience working with the Public Health authorities, through our Multi-ministry Taskforce, to integrate infectious disease management in the workplace within WSH. The government will work closely with employers and building owners to develop requirements and guidelines, such as sharing information with industry on transmission hotspots, for more targeted risk identification and interventions.
Urgent emphasis on Mental Health
8. A renewed focus on workplace health also includes our workers’ mental health. Many workers are under pressure from recent work changes, such as fear of job loss, and work from home arrangements leading to the blurring of work-life boundaries. Therefore the discussion on being happy at work and enhancing workers’ mental well-being brought up some important insights.
9. Professor David Chan, Director of the Behavioural Sciences Institute at SMU, shared that stress and strain associated with the COVID-19 crisis can be addressed through rearrangement and redesign of job duties and work processes. This is important as the physical and mental well-being of workers are not only positive ends in themselves; they also contribute to other positive ends like worker productivity, organisational commitment, and better quality of life both at work and outside work.
10. The concerns over mental health have prompted the IAP to also recommend enhancing workforce mental health support. Companies are encouraged to incorporate mental well-being as part of their Risk Assessment and Management frameworks. They need to identify stressors, develop strategies to mitigate them, and evaluate the effectiveness of intervention programmes. To help employers identify work stressors, MOM is currently piloting a web-based mental health assessment tool called iWorkHealth, which is expected to be fully launched and made available free to employers in early 2021.
11. The topic of after-hours communication was also surfaced during the Panel’s discussions. The IAP cautioned that rigid rules do not account for varied work-life patterns but could inadvertently add to workers’ stress. Employers must ensure the right balance of control, flexibility and understanding that workers may have to juggle other responsibilities when working from home. Instead, the IAP was in favour of employers making their expectations for after-hours communications clear to employees. This was indeed the approach the tripartite partners adopted in the Tripartite Advisory for Mental Well-being at Workplaces, released yesterday.
Maintaining Vigilance in Accident Prevention
12. The third set of IAP recommendations was to maintain vigilance in preventing safety risks while managing new risks brought about by COVID-19.
13. A concern in Singapore is the trend of companies rushing to make up for lost time following our partial lockdown, called the Circuit Breaker. As they implement COVID-19 measures, the fundamentals of risk assessment and accident prevention practices may be overlooked by employers and employees alike. This may explain why injuries continued to happen despite reductions in business and work activities for a substantial period in 2020.
14. The IAP also called for greater accountability by company leadership. To this end, the Panel has supported the development of an Approved Code of Practice to educate and engage company directors on their responsibilities and the ways to ensure WSH risks are effectively managed. At the same time, we strongly urge workers to co-operate with their employers as well, to play their part in mitigating WSH risks. The government will continue to support our businesses and empower our workforce towards managing the pandemic and improving WSH here in Singapore.
Embracing technology for work, business and WSH
15. Employers may worry: How to manage accident risks together with COVID risks, while budgets and manpower are tighter? Part of the answer lies in tapping on technology as a key enabler. MOM is collaborating with industry players, government agencies, Institutes of Higher Learning and technologies solution providers to integrate WSH into the technology ecosystem to disrupt unsafe work activities and mitigate risks at the source.
a. For example, I know that the Logistics sector has incorporated fleet safety management solutions into its Industry Digital Plan (IDP), and companies can now tap the government’s funding support to adopt these solutions. That is a good first step.
b. The Conference also made interesting recommendations of immersive technology like micro-learning, Virtual and Augmented Reality to make WSH training and learning more meaningful and effective.
16. I was also heartened to hear of two local companies that have been quick to adopt good WSH practices to mitigate COVID-19 risks and stay relevant amidst the pandemic.
17. Mr Alex Hungate, President and CEO of SATS, shared how the company quickly seized new opportunities during the pandemic by embracing technology. Earlier this year, its training academy made a complete switch from face-to-face courses to e-learning within a week, keeping personnel from the Singapore aviation ecosystem safe during the Circuit Breaker whilst they benefit from upskilling and multi-skilling. SATS turned the Circuit Breaker into an opportunity, indirectly helping to accelerate Changi Airport’s transformation into an Industry 4.0 digital aviation hub.
18. Another example is Singtel. Its Group Chief Human Resources Officer Ms Aileen Tan spoke about reinventing the role of HR in the new normal. Ahead of the Circuit Breaker, Singtel had already set up a Pandemic Control Committee to monitor the situation and devise ways to protect staff. Recognising that remote working could present challenges to staff’s mental well-being, Singtel also organised online activities like concerts and games, to facilitate staff interaction and inject a fun element into remote working life.
19. So what more can industries do to raise awareness of WSH during and post COVID-19 times? We have talked about business transformations, so it seems appropriate for us to relook our respective Industry Transformation Maps beyond productivity, training and technological solutions. I look forward to greater efforts to incorporate WSH elements across the industries, especially elements of health for a Total WSH approach to industries’ advancements. The reason is simple and cannot be over-emphasised – safety makes business sense.
20. I encourage all of you to apply what you have learnt to improve your company’s WSH performance, especially during this period as we work towards a safe community and workplaces with greater easing of the COVID management restrictions. Many of the discussions over the past two days have raised valuable learning points that are applicable not just in the current COVID-19 climate, but also for the immediate future. The foundations we have laid today will pave the way forward for a healthier and resilient workforce with safer workplaces.
21. The pandemic is here to stay, so I urge all of us to continue to take time to take care of our safety and health, to be adaptable and resilient as we live in times like these. Once again, thank you all for your participation in WSH Conference 2020 and I wish everyone good health till we see you again in 2022!