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Firm's risk management team never discussed machine fire, oil leaks in lead-up to deadly Tuas blast, hearing told

SINGAPORE — The company operating a Tuas industrial worksite where an explosion claimed the lives of three workers in February had in place a five-member risk management team, including an engineer who oversaw production there and the boss himself.

Firm's risk management team never discussed machine fire, oil leaks in lead-up to deadly Tuas blast, hearing told

Stars Engrg's general manager Desmond Chua Shi Yong leaving the State Courts building on Oct 1, 2021.

  • It was the 10th day of public hearings by an inquiry into a fatal blast at a Tuas industrial worksite
  • The committee heard that the company’s risk management team did not discuss the various “red flags” that emerged at the Tuas workshop
  • They also did not hold dedicated meetings to discuss safety and risk issues
  • Asked if he could at least have advised the boss on actions that could be taken, Stars Engrg engineer Lwin Moe Tun said: “My level is not advising.”

 

SINGAPORE — The company operating a Tuas industrial worksite where an explosion claimed the lives of three workers in February had in place a five-member risk management team, including an engineer who oversaw production there and the boss himself.

But the risk management team at Stars Engrg, which supplies fire protection systems, did not hold regular or dedicated meetings to talk about safety and risk issues arising from its clients’ project sites or the Tuas workshop where the firm produces fire-rated insulation wrap.

The team also never discussed various “red flags” in the lead-up to the explosion, including oil leaks, heater damage, smoke and a small fire at a mixer machine installed at the Tuas workshop. The machine eventually ruptured in the deadly blast on the morning of Feb 24.

Details of the risk management team emerged as three of its members took the stand on Friday (Oct 1), the 10th day of public hearings by an inquiry committee to determine the circumstances leading to the blast at 32E Tuas Avenue 11, including whether warnings were ignored.

The blast and fire at the industrial unit killed three workers who suffered 90 per cent burns and injured seven other workers — five of whom had burns that covered 35 to 58 per cent of their bodies. They are still receiving treatment.

Stars Engrg's general manager Desmond Chua Shi Yong, the older brother of the firm’s sole director Chua Xing Da, was among the three risk management team members who testified.

The 39-year-old told the committee that he “regrets” that the team did not record any minutes of its discussions. He added that if any safety issue arises at the Tuas workshop, the supervisor on the ground is in charge of handling the matter and reporting it to his 37-year-old brother.

He said that he was not involved in production work at Tuas and did not know what machinery was used there. In light of this, he was not asked further questions on the operations of the mixer machine at the hearing.

He mainly oversees tender processes, contracts, general administration, manpower planning and project planning at the firm, as well as monitoring work progress at clients’ project sites.

Another member of the risk management team who testified was the company’s safety coordinator Sarkar Shibu, who conducts monthly safety briefings for all of Stars Engrg’s workers at its Changi office.

Stars Engrg's safety coordinator Sarkar Shibu leaving the State Courts building on Oct 1, 2021. Photo: Ili Nadhirah Mansor/TODAY

The Bangladeshi said that his briefings would cover general hazards present at clients’ project sites. He added that he was never instructed to conduct safety briefings in relation to the work at the Tuas site.

‘MY LEVEL IS NOT ADVISING’

The third member of the risk management team who testified was Mr Lwin Moe Tun, the engineer who oversaw production at the Tuas site.

The 31-year-old Myanmar national was questioned the day before on why he deleted some of the contents of the phone belonging to Subbaiyan Marimuthu, 38, from India who supervised operations at the workshop, sent by the worker shortly before the explosion. Marimuthu died in the blast.

All three members of the inquiry committee, led by Senior District Judge Ong Hian Sun, had questions for Mr Lwin Moe Tun on Friday.

Mr Lucas Ng Hong Kiang, general manager of plant at the Petrochemical Corp of Singapore, asked if he advises the boss on issues relating to the mixer machine since one of his roles was to ensure smooth production at the Tuas workshop.

“My level is not advising, sir,” Mr Lwin Moe Tun replied.

Mr Ng then said: “Well, as an engineer in an organisation, I really don’t agree with what you said that you can’t advise the boss.

“You are a mechanical engineer and production engineer. You were trained (in workplace safety and health), and were also in the risk management team. So when such red-hot glowing observations arise, you do care about what to do.”

When Mr Lwin Moe Tun insisted that it was Mr Chua, not him, who looked after matters concerning the mixer machine, Mr Ng pressed him further: “Why didn’t you suggest to the boss to convene an investigation?”

Mr Lwin Moe Tun replied: “If there is a problem, I would report to the boss, and it is up to the boss to decide if something should be done or investigated.”

Mr Ng then asked if he had even carried out any investigations as a member of the risk management team. The engineer said that he had not.

Asked if he had ever seen any incident investigation reports, he also said that he had not.

‘I REPORT TO THE BOSS’

Another assessor in the committee, Dr Peter Nagler, followed up by asking if the engineer was worried that increasing amounts of smoke were coming out of the mixer machine when it was in use.

The committee earlier heard that Mr Lwin Moe Tun first witnessed white smoke coming out from the machine’s oil jacket as early as August or September last year, and noticed that the level of smoke got “a lot heavier” by January.

Mr Lwin Moe Tun said: “Since I don’t know what to do, I would report to somebody who knows, and let the people handle it.”

Dr Nagler, who is chief innovation officer at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research, responded: “(You are telling me that) you, as a trained production engineer with specific training in safety measures and risk assessment, you let other people handle the situation.”

Dr Nagler then asked: “Don’t you think that, after the incidents, it might be a good idea to adapt, amend, review the risk assessment, which was done in March 2020, long before all incidents happened?” The mixer machine was installed in June that year.

Mr Lwin Moe Tun answered: “Yes, I think so. But, also, I report to the boss.”

The hearing continues on Monday. An expert who looked into the technical causes of the accident is expected to testify.

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