Ensure worker safety or expect larger fines
High Court sets benchmark by fining construction firm $250,000 over 2 deaths
Employers who do not take adequate steps to ensure the safety and health of their workers at the workplace can expect to face stiffer fines in the future.
The High Court has reviewed the sentencing regime for breaches of the Workplace Safety and Health Act after agreeing with prosecutors that the fines imposed in previous cases have been too low.
The prosecution had argued to double the $150,000 fine handed down to GS Engineering & Construction last year for a 2014 accident in which two workers fell to their deaths from the seventh storey of a Fusionopolis worksite.
On Thursday, it was fined $250,000 - the highest fine to be imposed under the Act.
Prosecutors argued the courts have not "utilised the full range of the sentences prescribed by Parliament", which had set the maximum fine at $500,000, and proposed the High Court establish a sentencing framework.
The Act, which replaced the Factories Act in 2006, was enacted after a review of workplace safety regulations following three high-profile worksite accidents in 2004.
It sets a maximum fine of $500,000 for first-time offenders and $1 million for repeat offenders. Under the old Act, the maximum fine was $200,000.
While Parliament sets the maximum, the courts can lay down sentencing guidelines.
Prosecutors argued most of the fines meted out so far fall below 30 per cent of the maximum.
Before GS, no firm had been fined more than $200,0000.
In a 42-page written judgment, Judicial Commissioner See Kee Oon agreed that the fines imposed so far are too low.
"For future cases, the sentencing court should bear in mind that the legislative intent for the introduction of more severe penalties was to create a more palpable deterrent effect and encourage stakeholders to take more proactive measures to minimise... accidents," he said.
He laid down a sentencing framework which sets out possible fines, depending on the culpability of the employer and potential harm in each case.
For instance, a company which acts reflect a high level of culpability and a high potential for harm could be fined between $300,000 and $500,000.
A company which acts show a low level of culpability and a low potential for harm could be fined up to $20,000.
The fine would then be calibrated based on aggravating or mitigating factors.
In the case of GS, the judicial commissioner increased the fine to $250,000, ruling that the potential harm was high and culpability fell within the medium to high category.
He also took into account that the company had a good safety record and took remedial steps after the accident.
A Ministry of Manpower spokesman said the Attorney-General's Chambers and the ministry had sought a deterrent sentence "in light of the seriousness of the safety failures that led to the accident".
This year, 64 workers have died on the job. Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say had warned in August that workplace fatalities are on the rise.
The fatality rate in 2014 was 1.8 per 100,000 workers, and crept up to 1.9 last year and is projected to hit 2.2 this year.