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The government, employers and the labour movement need to re-examine its strategy towards workplace safety in light of the 50% increase in workplace fatalities reported in the Straits Times today (50% rise in construction deaths). Singapore’s approach to this issue so far has been to step up on enforcement checks, raise awareness, and mete out penalties for companies that ignore safety procedures. What is missing in the current discussion is the impact of exploitation, fatigue and poor living conditions on work place safety.
The majority of workers who approach HOME for assistance put in 10- to 16-hour work days from Mondays to Saturdays, and at least 8-hour work days on Sundays. Such conditions mean migrant construction workers have little rest time. A large number of them can also be found in living conditions which are cramped, poorly ventilated and infested with bed bugs and pests. This has a significant impact on their ability to concentrate and be alert while they are at work.
Construction work involves intense focus, heavy physical exertion and repetitive work tasks in sometimes inhospitable weather conditions. These are factors which lead to fatigue, leaving workers more vulnerable to work place accidents.
HOME has encountered cases where workers were afraid of pointing out poor safety practices for fear of being dismissed and repatriated. The ability of safety officers at work sites to make independent decisions such as a stop work order is also compromised because they are employees of the company or the main contractor. A more effective approach is for union representatives or other third parties to ensure safety at worksites.
The construction industry needs to take exploitation more seriously and improve the living conditions of their workers. Employers should put in place fatigue management programmes as part of their strategy to reduce work place accidents. The government needs to actively enforce laws which limit working hours. The physical and psychological well-being of all workers needs to be addressed if we want long term and significant reductions in the number of work place fatalities.”