Tackling workplace safety needs to start from the young, and nursery rhymes may help
The spate of workplace fatalities this year – standing at 30 so far and surpassing the 23 cases in the first half of 2021 – has caught nationwide attention and left many searching for the reasons behind this concerning trend.
One probable reason is the deprioritisation of safety amid business backlogs and employment loss due to the pandemic.
This is more apparent in the construction sector, where construction firms face recent mounting challenges from acute labour shortages, tight project deadlines, and skyrocketing material costs.
This, however, cannot be the sole reason because more than three in five workplace fatalities this year came from other sectors such as transport, marine, and manufacturing.
The other reason could be due to the severe impact of the pandemic on small and medium enterprises (SMEs) because, unlike many larger companies, SMEs are often faced with limited resources to meet the demands of this fast-changing environment.
In a push for profit, corners get cut and the safety of workers is compromised. This may explain why most of the workplace fatalities this year involved workers hired by SMEs.
Despite these seemingly obvious reasons, the occurrences of workplace accidents are usually symptoms of deeper issues much like fever being a common symptom of many diseases.
Multiple causes and risk factors involved make a thorough analysis of workplace accident cases a lengthy and complex process.
Unfortunately, this means there is no easy answer or solution to this recent spate of workplace fatalities and almost everyone will have a differing opinion.
A good analogy is the folklore describing how a group of blind men drew different conclusions about the look of an elephant by touching different parts of it.
While each of their perspectives is correct to a certain extent, it does not sufficiently capture the entire picture.
This, however, does not mean that we should do nothing in hope that this spike in workplace fatalities will blow over with time. In reality, this is an option we cannot afford because workplace accidents are more than mere statistics.
The loss of each life leaves a gaping hole in the lives of so many more people, in particular, the family of the deceased, and one is simply too many.
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has recently taken a wide range of measures in response to this spate of workplace fatalities.
This includes the introduction of stiffer penalties, increasing workplace inspections, and partnering with industry partners to conduct a safety time-out.
These are effective temporary measures akin to taking paracetamol for symptomatic treatment of fever while longer-term solutions are being formulated.
It is a fine balancing act because the over-reliance on punishment may breed a culture of blame and fault-finding which is counterintuitive to a strong safety culture.
On the other hand, cardinal rules and its associated punishment are an essential part of an effective safety management system although it should not be solely depended on.
A PROBLEM FOR EVERYONE
What is clear is that this is not merely a problem for MOM, business leaders, industry associations or safety professionals because all of us have a part to play in ensuring the safety of our workplaces.
About 80 per cent of the global population possesses some degree of optimism bias which breeds the “it will not happen to me” mentality.
This means that most of us are likely to belong to this group and are taking unnecessary risks in everyday life.
This could mean driving over the speed limit, looking at your phone while walking, or using several multi-plug adaptors on your electrical socket.
Your optimism bias leads you to believe that an accident will not happen although this line of thought cannot be further from the truth.
There is no silver bullet for optimism bias or poor safety performance and the most effective way to reduce it is through awareness.
For instance, being aware that a poor decision taken can result in an accident harming not only yourself but also others.
Being aware that safety is not about statistics but lives and livelihoods, and being aware that we can only achieve sustainable safety excellence if we care for and support each other.
This awareness of occupational safety should start from a young age for us to reap the long-term rewards.
For instance, my son learnt the importance of maintaining three points of contact when he was just three years old. His childcare teachers would sing a nursery rhyme whenever the children are using the stairs.
Using the rhythm of “Are you sleeping-Brother John”, the nursery rhyme goes: “Hold the handrail, hold the handrail, down the stairs, down the stairs, you don’t want to fall down, you don’t want to fall down, hold the handrail, hold the handrail.”
Being in primary school now, holding handrails when using stairs has become habitual to him.
INNOVATIVE STRATEGIES NEEDED
As the future of work continues to undergo profound changes brought upon by the pandemic as well as shifting environmental and technological contexts, there will be implications for the safety of the workforce.
This calls for innovative and responsive strategies such as the integration of occupational safety programmes into the educational system.
By starting young, we can better equip the next generation to manage occupational safety challenges of tomorrow.
Another example is the Total Workplace Safety and Health (Total WSH) programme, where the boundary between work and personal life is removed and we protect and promote safety, health and well-being of our people both on and off the job in a holistic way.
Apart from a slew of good strategies, sustained success takes unwavering commitment and focus.
Only when everyone understands the importance and plays our part in delivering this commitment towards workplace safety, can we prevent a recurrence of what has happened this year and achieve safety excellence.
About the author
Assistant Professor Loh Tzu Yang is the Co-Director of the Master of Science in Safety, Health and Environmental Technology programme offered by National University of Singapore’s College of Design and Engineering. His research interests are in risk analysis, industrial hygiene as well as occupational safety and health.