On the Building and Related Works Bill – Speech by Leon Perera

  1. Mr Speaker, Sir, the Building and Related Works Amendment Bill facilitates a simplified approval process for less complex and lower-risk buildings such as shelters and landed properties, and promotes the regulation of environmental health in respect of buildings, among other things. I support the Bill. 
  1. Beyond these improvements to regulatory frameworks, and while I acknowledge that many steps have been taken in this direction, I urge the Government to apply even greater efforts towards minimising work safety incidents in the construction industry.
  1. Workplace fatalities have been on the rise, following the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021.
  1. In 2021, there were 37 workplace fatalities. In 2022, there were a total of 46 workplace facilities.
  1. Most recently, a 20-year-old migrant worker was killed due to the collapse of a concrete wall at a work site in Tanjong Pagar. Earlier this year, there was a construction worker who fell from a roof while doing waterproofing work, and a migrant worker who was killed by falling bars.
  1. The project Migrant Death Map documented all migrant worker deaths from January 2000 to mid-2022 and investigated the key issues surrounding these deaths. 66% of the deaths were caused by workplace incidents. The project found that the lack of safety in work-sites and migrant workers’ work practices was not inherent to the nature of the work as many accidents were preventable and involved employer negligence, which may be symptomatic of prioritising financial gain over labour safety. Apart from the safety infrastructure, worker’s healthcare, mental health, and transportation facilities all play a part in creating a safe working environment.
  1. The Hon Minister of Manpower Dr Tan See Leng reported to the House in July last year that for the past five years, MOM received around 2,400 to 3,800 reports a year on unsafe acts in workplace from various channels such as the Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) hotline, eFeedback on MOM’s website and referrals from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and unions. The Minister also mentioned that MOM assesses each element of feedback and aims to ensure that relevant companies make the required rectifications and encourage workers to report unsafe workplace conditions. While these are welcome measures, the number of workplace fatalities suggest that there is much more to be done. According to the Migrant Worker Death Map, 455 migrant workers died between 1 Jan 2001 and 3 Aug 2022. These deaths amount to a moral call to action to save lives. But they also underline what is at stake in protecting our national brand and reputation as a caring society.
  1. First, the in-depth review and sharing of information on significant lessons learnt following workplace incidents is important. Companies can then improve from the failures of themselves and others, thereby enabling the benchmarking of safety procedures. 
  1. While the immediate cause of the accident is investigated and made known through a coroner’s inquiry, it is not known whether and how companies explore the deeper reasons behind safety lapses and make the necessary changes. For instance, for the migrant worker who was killed by bars falling on him, the coroner’s inquiry found that he had been using an unapproved method of securing the bars, resulting in the wire securing the bundle of bars, which was being lifted by a tower crane, snapping. Two workers who noticed the mistake on a previous occasion did not highlight the mistake to their supervisor. It is unclear why they did not do so. Reasons could include a lack of training, reporting procedure or an inclination to complete the job faster.
  1.  Rectification and stop work orders issued by MOM should ensure that companies make swift initial assessments and rectifications, including prompt solutions to safety reporting, when an accident happens, while waiting for the results of an investigation that should provide root cause analysis. Moreover, safety codes should be made as simple and visual as possible, so that workers can fully comprehend the safety procedures.
  1. Second, besides skills-based training, employees need to be given awareness-based training to be able to confidently report safety risks
  1. Awareness-based training tackles the impact of work pressure resulting in the compromise of safety boundaries. It would be key to follow safety procedures, and draw attention to the importance of doing so. On an everyday basis, one way could be using the pointing and calling method which we commonly see in Japanese companies, where each safety step taken is loudly stated. This helps to increase focus on the safety measures taken.
  1. On a more structural level, companies must set up adequate procedures for reporting, to ensure that workers understand that safety is crucial. The Industry Safety and Health Act in Japan obliges employers of work sites with 50 or more employees to establish a safety committee which must meet at least once a month, with half of the members nominated by a representative of the employees. While Singapore has similar regulations, the law in Japan requires the committee to circulate an agenda to all employees and provide opportunities to hear workers’ opinions  on matters related to workplace safety and health. This ensures that the opinions of the employees are reflected in the safety and health measures undertaken by the employer. 
  1. Third, the Government needs to regulate construction companies by invoking appropriate punishments to compel companies to ensure a safe working environment.
  1. While there is a Safety Disqualification Framework to disqualify contractors with a certain number of demerit points from public sector’s construction tenders, the demerit points framework has room to be tightened further. Companies have the leeway to accumulate a few breaches in safety before being disqualified from tenders. A company would have to accumulate three full stop work orders, or to have major injuries or the death of one person, before there is a disqualification of three months from entering into tenders.
  1. While company directors can be prosecuted under section 48 of the Workplace Health and Safety Act, we have not seen prosecutions of company directions arising from the many workplace safety incidents that have happened. Instead, it is companies that are penalised, without the individuals responsible being punished. If workplace accidents are not reduced significantly as a result of the other measures being taken, this should be reviewed.
  1. Apart from looking into major workplace safety concerns, there are also issues of concern with heat, especially with our rising temperatures amidst climate change. Construction workers are disproportionately affected because they have to wear heavy safety gear like helmets and thick rubber boots, which trap huge amounts of heat. Migrant workers lack access to cooling technology because they work outdoors and at times in remote areas. During hot spells, there is also no “stop work order” with companies being able to insist that workers continue work when temperatures are much higher than normal.
  1. The Hon Minister for Manpower shared in May this year that MOM conducts targeted inspections to check on-site measures and acclimatisation programmes for workers. 
  1. In addition to inspections, we can look more into the way construction sites are built. There should be access to shaded areas and access to water facilities, and even access to air-conditioned rest areas whether from the work site or nearby areas. For instance, construction sites can tie up with nearby shopping malls or office buildings to provide air-conditioned spaces for rest.
  2. As we enjoy the fruits of the labour of our migrant workers who toil to maintain our living environment, let’s never forget that they live here too, and they deserve the highest level of gratitude and protection from Singapore.