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Cost-cutting, fatigue hurt workplace safety: NGO

SINGAPORE — Fatigued from a series of 24-hour shifts that were followed by a day of rest, construction worker Tao (not his real name) unclipped his harness to descend from scaffolding with fewer rungs than were needed as a result of his employer’s cost-cutting measures. He could not find a comfortable footing and fell 3m, landing on his back last March.

Cost-cutting, fatigue hurt workplace safety: NGO

Workers working at a construction site. TODAY File Photo

SINGAPORE — Fatigued from a series of 24-hour shifts that were followed by a day of rest, construction worker Tao (not his real name) unclipped his harness to descend from scaffolding with fewer rungs than were needed as a result of his employer’s cost-cutting measures. He could not find a comfortable footing and fell 3m, landing on his back last March.

The scaffolding at another injured worker’s worksite did not even have a rung to clip his safety harness to and its 60cm planks were narrower than the normal 1m width. The worker said an unqualified colleague operating a forklift hit the scaffolding, causing him to fall 2m to the ground and lose consciousness last December. When the worker returned the next morning to take a photograph of the scaffolding, it had been reconstructed according to safety regulations overnight.

Excessive workloads and unreasonable productivity targets, cost-cutting measures resulting in less time and resources, as well as fatigue and lack of rest were key factors affecting work safety cited in a recent report by non-governmental organisation (NGO) HealthServe.

The report — a copy of which was sent to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) — came in the wake of a rise in workplace fatalities. There were 30 deaths in the first half of this year — five more than in the same period last year, 17 of which occurred in the construction sector. Yesterday, one worker died and two others were injured after plunging three storeys when a platform over a stairwell collapsed at a construction site on Pioneer Turn. The police and the MOM are investigating the incident, and all work on the site has been halted.

HealthServe’s report — which was completed in August — examined worksite safety from the perspective of construction workers and was authored by researcher and case worker Stephanie Chok, who spoke to 20 workers from China seen by the NGO.

Some factors affecting safety cited by the workers were similar to those previously voiced by construction companies in previous reports by TODAY: The boom in construction demand, a shortage of workers and the latter’s fatigue from working overtime.

But the workers also pointed to the central role often played by supervisors and employers in exposing them to risks. They spoke of having to rush to meet targets to avoid having their salaries deducted and being strictly managed by supervisors with the power to order them off the sites or even fire them. These supervisors would instruct them to ignore risks and “get back to work” and would scold and harass workers who were slow or took too many toilet breaks, the interviewees said.

The workers interviewed typically worked 10 to 13 hours a day. But during a 24-hour shift, Tao said they had about two-and-a-half hours of rest, with no time to idle outside meal breaks.

Public service campaigns, such as banners put up at construction sites, tended to place the onus on workers to ensure that accidents do not happen, but this “negates the genuine fear and disempowerment many workers in hazardous situations feel daily at their worksites”, Ms Chok wrote.

HealthServe said its findings indicated that in the formulation of workplace safety policies, greater emphasis needs to be placed on workers’ participation and well-being. There is also a need to resolve tensions between worksite safety and time and cost pressures, pay attention to supply-chain pressures and identify the causes of unsafe conditions, it added.

Responding to TODAY’s queries, the MOM said it would factor in HealthServe’s report as it continues to work with the construction industry to improve workplace safety and health. It added that it would not tolerate practices that endanger the safety and health of workers. Errant companies may be prosecuted in court and fined up to S$500,000 for a first offence.

“Our investigations have shown that causes of workplace accidents are multifaceted,” said an MOM spokesperson. “Some of the contributory factors include a lack of safety provisions, poor supervision, a lack of adequate training of workers, excessive fatigue and, in some cases, the negligence of personnel.”

The MOM has stepped up enforcement measures, conducting about 4,600 inspections in the first eight months of this year. It issued 51 stop-work orders, nearly 2,000 composition fines and more than 6,000 warnings.

Changes are afoot for the Demerit Points System, which penalises main and sub-contractors for workplace safety and health infringements. It will be simplified to a single-stage system where the accumulation of demerit points will result in longer periods of debarment from access to foreign manpower. The number of demerit points issued will also be recalibrated in accordance with the gravity of offences. More details will be released in the first quarter of next year.

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