Singapore

Labour crunch and Covid disruptions raise worksite safety concerns

Uptick in number of injuries; number of workplace safety and health contraventions nearly double

The squeeze on manpower as well as the disruption brought about by the Covid-19 crisis to construction projects have raised fears about safety being compromised at worksites of late.

Latest figures from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) indicate that the number of workplace injuries has also increased slightly to close to 3,300 between January and March, compared with about 3,100 during the same period last year. The data for injuries last month is not yet available.

More than 3,200 workplace safety and health (WSH) contraventions were found during inspections between January and last month, partially due to stepped-up enforcement efforts this year.

This is nearly double the 1,800 breaches for the same period last year.

There were also 14 workplace fatalities between January and last month - same as the figure for the same period last year.

These figures do not include passengers who were injured or killed in traffic accidents while commuting to and from work.

Last month, there were two such fatalities when workers who were travelling in the back of a lorry were involved in an accident.

Though the figures have not increased sharply from last year, groups such as the Singapore Contractors Association Limited (Scal) and the Singapore Manufacturing Federation said the pressure now to complete delayed projects may increase the risk of workplace accidents and injuries.

There is also a possibility that injuries may be under-reported, said a spokesman for the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics' casework team.

Responding to queries from The Straits Times, a Scal spokesman said the construction sector is currently facing a serious labour crunch, as many workers have left Singapore and are unable to return due to the closure of borders.

Mr Arjun Nair, a safety officer with experience in construction, noted that many firms lack the resources, manpower and time to conduct in-house safety and health retraining where required, owing to the impact of Covid-19.

Beng Khim Engineering and Construction director Thomas Oh said he is concerned about workers' mental health amid the Covid-19 crisis.

"They are worried about their family members back home... Some are not sleeping or eating well (because of this)," he told ST.

Migrant workers may also still be suffering from side effects even after recovering from Covid-19, said Mr Alex Au, vice-president of migrant rights group Transient Workers Count Too, who noted that about half of the workers staying in dormitories have had Covid-19.

Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at National University of Singapore, noted that fatigue and difficulty in concentrating have been reported as possible symptoms of the long-term effects of a Covid-19 infection.

There are also some longstanding gaps in the WSH regime at worksites that may compound existing safety issues. For instance, WSH coordinators - a requirement for construction projects below $10 million - are often foreigners here on work permits, said Mr Nair.

As they fear a backlash or losing their jobs if they highlight lapses, these foreign WSH coordinators are often not well placed to raise safety issues, which means that risks could go unchecked, he added.

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