Workplace Safety and Health (Amendment) Bill – Speech by Daniel Goh


(Delivered in Parliament on 6 November 2017)

Mr Speaker Sir, workplace safety and health is a serious concern. When the viaduct at the Pan-Island Expressway worksite at Upper Changi Road East collapsed killed a worker and injured 10 others in July, Singaporeans were shocked and saddened. Even though many of the workers who are most exposed to the risk of injuries at the workplace are foreign workers, Singaporeans do not discriminate but instead feel for them as fellow workers. There is a common humanity in seeing bodies broken by preventable accidents. There are no national differences in knowing families are devastated by the lives of loved ones lost.

As far as this bill seeks to achieve the goals of the Workplace Safety and Health 2018 Plus strategy, it is a commendable move. Since the new WSH framework was implemented in 2005, workplace injuries and fatalities have come down substantially. The rate of fatal injuries came down from 4.9 per 100,000 employed persons in 2004 to the targeted 1.8 in 2014. There is scope to go down further, as many advanced industrial countries such as United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands have lower rates, as low as 1.0. One of the four strategic outcomes for WSH 2018 is for Singapore to be renowned as a centre of excellence of WSH. We need to compete with these leaders. I would like to bring up three points on this bill to make us more competitive.

Positive Learning Culture of Concern for Worker Well-being

But our recent progress has stagnated. The rate of fatal injuries bounced back up and hovered at 1.9 in the last two years. We seem to have hit a roadblock in improving workplace safety and health. To tackle the roadblock, WSH 2018 Plus seeks to adopt a differentiated enforcement approach to improve the WSH performance of companies with different capabilities and attitude, and to build collective ownership of a pervasive WSH culture. This suggests that the roadblock appears to be widespread organizational culture that goes against WSH principles. I say this without being facetious in reference to the SMRT saga. Can the Minister confirm that this is the problem we are facing now with regards to WSH progress?

If it is so, then the amendments in this bill to give the Commissioner the power to prepare and publish a learning report on any accident, dangerous occurrence or occupational disease in a workplace under investigation should be supported. This is the first point I would like to bring up. We need to create a positive learning culture of respect and concern for the well-being of our workers rather than a culture of blame, scapegoating and compensation. In this light, that the learning report is inadmissible as evidence in court proceedings and that an inspector involved in the learning report cannot be compelled to give testimony or evidence are understandable. This will protect the objectives of the learning report.

However, the new Section 27B subsection 3 allows for the learning report to be admissible as evidence in three types of inquiry. The first is an Inquiry Committee that the Minister can appoint under the Workplace Safety and Health Act to hold an inquiry into any accident, dangerous occurrence or occupational disease, which could lead to criminal proceedings. The second is an inquiry under the Coroners Act. The third is an inquiry by a commission of inquiry or a committee of inquiry under the Inquiries Act. This adds layers of complexity that may affect the preparation and publication of a learning report. Let me just tackle one such layer, the first one in which the Minister can appoint an Inquiry Committee under the WSH Act.

When the Commissioner becomes aware of an accident in a workplace, he or she may direct an inspector to investigate the accident. Depending on the findings of the investigation, he may direct a learning report to be prepared. The Commissioner may also recommend to the Minister to appoint an Inquiry Committee. Can the Commissioner do both? If so, how can the inspector be expected to not compromise the objectives of the learning report, knowing that the report will be admitted as evidence for the Inquiry Committee and he can be compelled to testify before it? If the Inquiry Committee recommends criminal proceedings to be instituted by submitting a copy of the report to the Public Prosecutor, then in the subsequent criminal proceedings, can the learning report be admitted as evidence and the inspector called to testify before court? There is some ambiguity as to whether Section 27B subsections 1 and 2 allow for this subsequent development. Can the Minister please clarify?

Tackling Occupational Diseases and Workplace Health

Moving on to my second point: we need to better tackle occupational diseases and improve workplace health. Beyond the headline-grabbing accidents, MOM statistics for the recent years show that the number of confirmed occupational diseases is rising. The percentage of fatalities with workplace health as a contributory factor rose to one-third in 2014. While the occupational diseases and workplace health issues are less visible and their impact less immediate, because they have what is called a long latency period, some diseases taking many years to surface after exposure to the causes, they can have far greater life-changing impact on workers. The WSH strategy is currently oriented towards reducing workplace fatality and injury. I believe there is a need to pay equal attention to occupational diseases and workplace health, with appropriate targets in reducing incidences of occupational diseases.

It is in this arena that I think a positive learning culture would have multiplier effects on improving workplace health. However, the learning report is not so useful in this respect. The learning report instrument is useful for workplace safety, as learning points could be quickly shared and corrections quickly made to prevent similar accidents from happening across an industrial sector. This instrument is less useful for workplace health, as the long latency period of occupational diseases could mean that thousands of workers would have been affected by the time an incidence is made known and a learning report published. There is a need for a different model here due to the different nature of occupational diseases.

The learning report model is also less useful because many of our workers exposed to occupational diseases are foreign workers and the long latency period of occupational diseases means that these workers may only develop ill health after they have gone home or are sent back because of their ill health. Incidences of occupational disease will go unreported in such cases.

We could learn from the UK Government’s Health and Safety Executive, the counterpart of our WSH Council. There are two aspects we can learn from and to adapt for our efforts to tackle occupation diseases and workplace health. Firstly, instead of a reactive approach that focuses on reporting, investigating and enforcing, the approach taken by the HSE encourages proactive promotion and sharing of ideas and solutions between companies within and across industry sectors. Secondly, on its part, the HSE focuses the sharing on two key priority areas, which are respiratory diseases and occupational cancer. This is because these potentially affect many workers and were shown to have high incidence of disease.

Tackling the Under-Reporting of Accidents

One issue that will subvert any model is under-reporting of accidents and occupational diseases. This is my third and last point: we need to tackle the under-reporting of accidents to make the learning point instrument effective and to make ownership of a learning WSH culture possible and meaningful. Is there under-reporting of accidents and occupational diseases here in Singapore? We do not know. But there are some indications there could be. NGOs such as Transient Workers Count Too have raised this concern. MOM statistics also indicate the possibility. For example, the number of cases of Occupational Skin Disease doubled in the first half of 2017, which MOM said was likely due to greater awareness of reporting requirements. I believe it is timely for the government to commission a study on the scale and causes of under-reporting of accidents and occupational diseases.

In this regard, the Government’s approach to occupational diseases is more stringent and progressive, as doctors are required to report any of the occupational diseases listed in the Second Schedule of the WSH Act. This is conveniently done through MOM’s electronic notification system or the Ministry of Health’s Health Professional Portal. As the WSH Council’s Guidelines on the Diagnosis and Management of Occupational Diseases state on this reporting requirement, “A robust notification system provides important data for understanding the extent and depth of the occupational safety and health status in Singapore. It helps the authorities to identify persons and industries at risk, as well as to identify new and emerging ones.”

Very well-said! Now surely this applies to workplace safety and the reporting of accidents too. So why not require doctors to report any suspected workplace accidents especially when the worker is hospitalised for at least 24 hours or given MC for more than 3 days? This is required for employers, but they have no natural incentive to do this, especially when the injured workers are foreign workers who are not aware of their rights or are too afraid of having their employment terminated by their employers and forcibly repatriated. Doctors are better placed to report the injuries as suspected to be resulting from workplace accidents since they are pledged to a professional ethical code and have the knowledge to give a proper diagnosis of the injuries and opinion to the causes of the injuries. Furthermore, the system is already in place for doctors to report occupational diseases in a convenient and accessible manner. There is very little cost to adding on the requirement for doctors to report injuries due to suspected workplace accidents.

Let me repeat the WSH Council’s words, “A robust notification system provides important data for understanding the extent and depth of the occupational safety and health status in Singapore. It helps the authorities to identify persons and industries at risk, as well as to identify new and emerging ones.” This applies equally to workplace accidents. Required reporting is part of the learning culture that the WSH 2018 Plus framework is trying to promote. I urge the Government to consider required reporting by doctor of injuries suspected to be caused by workplace accidents. With the learning report instrument, such reporting does not have to end in blame and liability, but in getting whole industry sectors to take responsibility and ownership of WSH. I cannot see the logic of excluding required reporting by doctors of injuries in this new learning culture we are trying to promote.

Mr Speaker Sir, on that note of urging, I would like to say, I support the bill.