In the first eight months of this year, 26 workers in Singapore have died from accidents at work. They were killed in mishaps, including falling from heights, tripping and accidents involving vehicles.
Every death means a broken family, and every injury and illness means suffering for a worker. And while Singapore has made strides in improving workplace safety and health over the past decade, there is no reason why it cannot do better, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stressed in a speech at the triennial World Congress on Safety and Health at Work earlier this month.
So he set the country a new target: to have fewer than one workplace fatality per 100,000 workers before 2028 - or nearly half the current rate.
The goal is ambitious but not far-fetched.
Other countries such as the Netherlands, Britain and Sweden maintain workplace fatality rates of less than one per 100,000 workers, while Finland halved its rate from 1.8 in 2002 to 0.9 in 2013.
Last year, Singapore's workplace fatality rate was 1.9, fairly close to its target of reaching 1.8 by next year. That previous target was set by Mr Lee in 2008, when the rate was 2.8.
Regulations have helped so far. The Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) Act was introduced in 2006 and expanded in 2008 and 2011 to cover all workplaces, not just traditional factories and worksites.
SUPPORT FOR FIRMS
We need a balanced approach, supporting companies to pay attention to workplace safety and health, without unduly burdening them with high compliance costs or impractical requirements.''
PRIME MINISTER LEE HSIEN LOONG, on how beyond a point, more rules will result in a heavier burden for employers - but not greater safety.
HEALTH RISKS V SAFETY
Research has proven that workers with certain adverse health risks and chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension are not only less productive, but are also at higher risk of safety lapses. ''
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR CHIA SIN ENG, of the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, in a recent commentary.
You have taken away that blame and finger-pointing concept so it is more about what we can learn, what we can do better, and when you get that engagement and that culture, that is when you start seeing things improve.''
MR GUY SMITH, national health, safety and environmental manager for New Zealand company Waste Management, on encouraging staff to take more initiative by removing the blame culture.
Safety is really no different from any other careful management. It takes attention to detail. To be productive and efficient, you have to plan carefully what you do and execute it, and if you do that, safety comes with it.''
DR KNUT RINGEN, of the Centre for Construction Research and Training in the US, on equipping bosses of small firms with better management skills.
It is being reviewed by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), which may, among other things, enhance deterrence through more stringent penalties for offences that result in serious injuries or deaths.
Design for Safety regulations that came into force in August last year state that developers, designers and contractors all have to plan for the safe building and maintenance of projects.
But Mr Lee noted that beyond a point, more rules will result in a heavier burden for employers - but not greater safety. "Instead, we need a balanced approach, supporting companies to pay attention to workplace safety and health, without unduly burdening them with high compliance costs or impractical requirements," he said.
Insight looks at what more can be done to help Singapore reach its new target, and what the latest efforts are to get workers home safely.
While the use of machines helps raise productivity, it can also lower the instances of workers getting in harm's way.
In the construction sector, there has been a greater push for technology use in recent years, partly to cope with the rising cost of labour. Methods like prefabricated, pre-finished volumetric construction, where entire rooms are built and fitted offsite before assembly, can reduce the amount of manual work on sites.
Robots can be used to weld, cut and assemble products, so workers do not have to use dangerous tools. Now, drones can also go to risky places so workers do not have to.
Drones are already being used to survey buildings, instead of having inspectors climbing up and risking falls, Professor Karl-Heinz Noetel of BG Bau, the German Social Accident Insurance Institution for the construction industry, told the World Congress.
They can also be used to conduct inspections at construction sites to check that workers in high areas are using proper safety equipment, he said.
Robots and machines pose their own safety risks, however, so workers must be given proper training to work alongside them.
With vast improvements in connectivity in recent years, the use of sensors is also becoming a viable way of monitoring equipment and people to predict and prevent accidents before they occur.
Some transport and logistics companies, such as Bok Seng Logistics, have installed fatigue management technology in some of their heavy vehicles. Cameras can detect when the driver feels sleepy, and the system triggers an alert causing the seat to vibrate to rouse him.
Big data is another tool that can improve understanding of risks and hazards. Ongoing work by the National Institute for Insurance against Accidents at Work in Italy, for instance, includes using data from mobile phones to estimate the risk of car fatalities on people's routes between home and work.
In the search for new frontiers, the Government launched a fund of up to $2 million this month to support institutes and companies in developing high-tech solutions to reduce workplace deaths from vehicular accidents.
Such accidents claimed the lives of 82 workers from 2013 to last year, the highest number among the various types of fatal incidents.
When it comes to training, technology can be an aid as well.
A repository of short refresher videos could be accessed by workers on the go.
Some companies are even using virtual reality modules to help staff learn the ropes in a more interactive way. By simulating risky work environments, from oil rigs to kitchens, these systems also let workers practise activities and make mistakes in a safe environment.
Ms Sheena Eyre, health and safety director for Asia-Pacific at facilities management firm Sodexo, said doing training in a fun way also helps people remember what they learnt.
One virtual reality scenario Sodexo has been trying out is placing items onto shelves in a safe way, with heavier items lower down and items like cans higher up. Staff usually have a good laugh when one of them messes up, said Ms Eyre.
"It will nudge people because when they get into the storeroom, they will remember laughing at their colleague or that their colleague was laughing at them - but they will make the right choices ."
Singapore's workplace fatality rate, which is fairly close to its target of reaching 1.8 by next year. Other countries such as the Netherlands, Britain and Sweden maintain workplace fatality rates of less than one per 100,000 workers, while Finland halved its rate from 1.8 in 2002 to 0.9 in 2013.
Number of workplace deaths from vehicular accidents in Singapore, from 2013 to last year - the highest number among the various types of fatal incidents.
Even the newest technology can only go so far if safety and health are not seen as genuine concerns at work.
Business leaders shape company culture and values, and can help to drive home the Vision Zero message - launched locally in 2015 during the National WSH Campaign to develop a mindset that all injuries and ill health arising from work are preventable and, ultimately, zero harm is possible.
Mr Jason Oh, an executive committee member of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) in Singapore, said the Republic can do more to raise awareness about this campaign.
One way could be through an online portal for companies to share ideas and resources on how to promote safer behaviour, he said.
In the push to prevent fatalities, the impact of work on health is also something that needs to be tackled to improve workers' lives, as the harm done by occupational diseases such as hearing loss and musculoskeletal problems can be more hidden but still as devastating as more obvious injuries.
An often overlooked factor is the impact of general health on safety risks, said Associate Professor Chia Sin Eng of the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, in a recent commentary.
"Research has proven that workers with certain adverse health risks and chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension are not only less productive, but are also at higher risk of safety lapses," he said, adding that Vision Zero and Total WSH - which looks at the interconnection across work, safety and health - should be adopted together to help Singapore achieve its target.
Companies could have more intervention programmes to screen and manage chronic diseases among staff. But workers must also see the need to work safely.
Mr Guy Smith, national health, safety and environmental manager for New Zealand company Waste Management, who attended the World Congress this month, said one way to encourage employees to take more initiative is to remove the culture of blame.
His company saw more reports of near-miss incidents being made when the message to staff was that such reports are good, and that managers would look at the issues or people involved fairly and without judgment. "You have taken away that blame and finger-pointing concept so it is more about what we can learn, what we can do better, and when you get that engagement and that culture, that is when you start seeing things improve," he said.
Labour MP Melvin Yong, who is director of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) WSH Secretariat, said employees themselves can initiate changes in work processes.
In a recent blog post, he said workers are the ones who know the intricacies of work processes, "so they are in the best position to advise on the level of risk involved and appropriate control measures".
In an earlier post, he cited examples of unionists who made a difference, such as an assistant engineer at Singapore Airport Terminal Services who implemented tags for bags that are heavier than 32kg, to help reduce the risk of back injuries among baggage handlers.
Another is a senior technician in the chemical industry who noticed that his colleagues constantly fell ill and raised this issue to management. After an investigation, choked filters were cleaned and the average number of days of sick leave taken per worker each year halved.
Beyond educating employers and employees, experts said the key to ensuring that WSH improvements are sustainable is to start educating the next generation of workers.
This is an important step to help Singapore maintain its fatality rate at below one after it gets there.
To reach out to children, IOSH has created animated safety videos in the style of the game Minecraft, which it hopes to distribute to schools here. The videos cover simple topics such as the danger of being burned by hot soup if pupils dash around the canteen.
Singapore Institution of Safety Officers (Siso) honorary president Seet Choh San said that WSH should be an integral part of tertiary education.
But rather than sitting students down for 20 hours of a structured module on safety, why not take 20 seconds of every lesson to highlight a relevant point, he suggested.
For example, if an aerospace engineering lecturer talks about maintenance work on the tail fin of an aircraft, he can point out that falling from heights is one of the top contributors to workplace fatalities.
The international community is also taking notice of the need to engage youth. At the 21st World Congress on Safety and Health at Work earlier this month, a congress for young people from around the world was also organised for the first time, to encourage them to think of solutions to WSH issues.
HELPING SMALLER FIRMS
When it comes to protecting workers, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) play a crucial role. They make up nearly all businesses in Singapore and employ about 70 per cent of the workforce.
And their workers tend to be the ones on the ground doing the manual work.
But one issue many SMEs face is that they are unaware of WSH risks in their workplaces, even though they may want to improve, said NTUC's Mr Yong.
The Manpower Ministry's bizSafe programme is one way to reach SMEs, which experts said has helped. It guides companies to build capabilities in managing WSH over several stages.
To give firms a further boost, the ministry is setting up a Total WSH Services Centre this month in a business park in Woodlands East Industrial Estate.
The centre will be run as a pilot project for 24 months and will provide free consultations, health screenings and workshops for park tenants. More such centres will be set up if the approach works well.
For some firms, a lack of funds to implement safety and health programmes is another limiting factor.
Mr Jacky Chen, operations manager for Wee Meng Construction Engineering, which makes steel structures, said prices for contracts are at rock bottom, and it is hard to set aside money to send workers for extra safety training beyond what is required.
"It would be good if we can send them for more detailed training for their specific jobs," he said.
He suggested setting a standard amount per worker which companies must allocate for safety training, so that it no longer factors into tender bids. The money could come from the levy charges for foreign workers, he said.
IOSH's Mr Oh added that in the construction sector, developers need to be involved in the Vision Zero push by not squeezing small contractors for every last cent. "Give them adequate resources and time so that they can build safely," he said.
Similar problems exist among small businesses in the European Union. Professor David Walters and Dr Emma Wadsworth from Cardiff University in Britain said in a published paper on the topic that some solutions which have been discussed include combining market-based incentives with regulatory duties, and increasing the risks to companies' reputations should they perform poorly.
However, they noted that there is limited evidence on how effective such approaches have been.
Dr Knut Ringen of the Centre for Construction Research and Training in the United States said that one solution, perhaps, is to equip bosses of small businesses with better management skills.
"Safety is really no different from any other careful management. It takes attention to detail. To be productive and efficient, you have to plan carefully what you do and execute it, and if you do that, safety comes with it," he said on the sidelines of this month's conference.
Siso's Mr Seet said that ultimately, Singapore's WSH target is achievable if everyone has not just safety knowledge, but also values.
"Telling people what to do addresses the head. If you really want people to do it, you must bring it 12 inches down to the heart," he said.
•Additional reporting by Danson Cheong
Mind your safety
Making safe practices a habit at the workplace
Whether three or 100 people are present, every formal meeting at facilities management and services company Sodexo begins with a "safety moment".
It can be as simple as talking about a viral video of a dangerous incident, or as detailed as a presentation of safety statistics for a site.
Sodexo's Asia-Pacific health and safety director Sheena Eyre says the practice, started a few years ago, serves to keep safety at the forefront of people's minds.
Since 2015, the company has been focusing on encouraging safer behaviours, instead of just attaining certifications and having safety systems in place, she says.
"It's about empowering all our teams so that they feel all accidents are preventable, and they have a role to play in achieving it. So it's not just the health and safety teams that keep people safe, it's everybody."
It seems to have borne results. In the last financial year, the company reduced the time lost from injuries by 20 per cent, even though headcount increased, says Ms Eyre.
As part of the efforts, company leaders visit sites regularly, while site managers hold toolbox talks with front-line staff at least once a week. They discuss safety issues encountered in their daily work and improvements that can be made.
Staff are asked to do three checks for safety: do I have the know-how, the right equipment and a safe environment for my work.
Reporting of near-misses is encouraged, and the firm takes action and may also ask its clients to make changes to equipment or work processes, if needed.
Seeing the reports getting a response gives staff greater confidence to bring up other things, says Ms Eyre.
For example, when staff in Singapore saw that hot oil was being left in kitchen pans unattended, which could catch fire, the health and safety team issued a notice to all staff in the region to alert them to the danger of fire. It introduced safety checks like making sure everyone in the kitchen is aware of hot oil in pans, and never leaving oil to heat in pans unattended.
The team is also piloting a sensor system which cuts off the gas supply if the oil gets too hot.
Besides encouraging a mindset shift among employees, Sodexo is also using technology to improve working conditions. In Singapore, it uses a robot glass cleaner at some sites to reduce the need for people to work at heights. The device can reach areas up to 5m high.
This makes work safer for staff like Mr Syed Nasir Syed Mohammed, 61, who cleans the public areas at Hotel Indigo and Holiday Inn Express in Katong.
Without the robot, cleaning higher surfaces would require two staff - one to hold the ladder steady while the other climbs the ladder to clean. Now, Mr Syed can work at ground level, using a remote control to guide the robot to do the dirty work.
"I appreciate the robot, it's simple to use and it saves time," he says.
At the end of the day, safety is simply about making employees' lives better, says Ms Eyre.
"Being in the service industry, our teams are our biggest assets... Health and safety is one of the ways we can make sure our staff have good quality of life and go home and enjoy their time with their families," she says.
Tech it to the next level
Tools to boost safety
At a warehouse hub in Boon Lay, workers at Bollore Logistics ride in turret trucks and order pickers to heights of up to 12m to do stock counts of clients' goods.
But an Infinium Scan drone can now be programmed to automatically make its way through the aisles to scan QR codes on goods, even when operators are on their breaks.
It is one of the technology tools being tested to aid workers in the fast-paced logistics sector, where they often have to navigate around heavy equipment and stacked goods placed throughout massive storage hubs.
After a successful trial run this year, Bollore aims to roll out the drone technology to its other warehouses in Singapore and the region.
Besides keeping workers safe on the ground during stock checks, the system also raises productivity. A stock count that would take six months to complete manually was done in less than a week by the drone, said Mr Arslan Qazi, solutions engineer at Bollore Logistics Singapore and a member of Bollore's innovation centre B.Lab.
"Our operators can identify and resolve inventory discrepancies on an almost live basis and reduce their need to travel and work at heights, while the vehicles can be freed up for other tasks," he added.
The drones are developed by home-grown drone maker Infinium Robotics, whose chief executive Woon Junyang wants to reduce manpower constraints and improve safety in the warehouse industry.
Over at DHL Supply Chain, forklift drivers receive a sound alert and a vibration from a wristband if their colleagues are close by, so they can stop the vehicle. Their mobile devices and wrist sensors pick up on sensors carried by other warehouse operators, connected through the Internet of Things.
This new safety system was piloted last year in the DHL Advanced Regional Centre in Tampines.
It aims to prevent accidents involving materials-handling equipment such as forklifts and belts, which are among the top safety-related incidents at DHL warehouses, said Mr Steve Walker, DHL Supply Chain's chief information officer for Asia-Pacific and the Global Warehouse Management Systems Centre of Excellence.
To ensure employees do not operate equipment when they are exhausted, the wrist sensors alert supervisors when the operators' heart rates fall below normal levels. The operators will then be told to take a break. The sensors also show up on a heat map which supervisors can use to review busy and high-risk areas.
The company is looking at how to roll out the technology more widely in its warehouses, said Mr Walker.