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Speech by Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, at the Launch of the National Workplace Safety and Health Campaign

07 May 2014

Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Minister for Manpower,

Mr Hawazi Daipi, Senior Parliamentary Secretary (Education and Manpower),

Mr Lee Tzu Yang,
Chairman, Workplace Safety and Health Council,

Ms Diana Chia,
President, National Trade Union Congress (or NTUC),

Mr John Ng,
Vice President, Singapore National Employers’ Federation (or SNEF),

Mr Moussa Oumarou,
Director of the International Labour Organization Governance and Tripartism Department,

Members of the ASEAN OSHNET community,

Distinguished speakers, moderators and delegates of the Singapore WSH Conference 2014,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to be with you today to launch the National Workplace Safety and Health Campaign 2014 and talk about our priorities as we go forward.

Need for Fundamental Shifts in Our WSH Approach

2. Let me begin with where we stand today in Workplace Safety and Health (or “WSH”) in Singapore, and why we need fundamental shifts in our approach as we go forward in our WSH journey. 

3. We are at an inflection point. We have achieved good results in bringing down our overall workplace fatality rate from 4.0 per 100,000 employees in 2005 to 2.1 in 2013. But the rate of improvement has slowed, and we are at risk of plateau-ing or even slipping back. If we do more of the same, more of what we have been doing already, we will likely see marginal improvement at best.

4. In particular, our WSH performance in the first three months of 2014 is of grave concern. We had 19 workplace fatalities, five more compared to the same period last year. 12 of the 19 lives were lost in the construction sector[1]. Over the last three years, the fatality rate in the construction sector has in fact increased from 5.5 in 2011 to 5.9 in 2012, and then to 7.0 in 2013.

5. The situation is unacceptable, and we cannot let it continue. While construction firms face genuine operating challenges, such as worker shortages in some areas and pressure to complete projects on time, the safety and health of workers must be the foremost priority for everyone. With construction demand expected to remain strong, there is an especially pressing need to arrest this rise in worksite fatalities, and achieve clear and lasting improvement in the sector’s WSH performance.

6. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has taken immediate measures to step up its regulatory controls as well as its enforcement efforts. These measures include the strengthening of the Business under Surveillance (or “BUS”) programme[2] and the Stop Work Order (or “SWO”) regime, and heavier penalties for companies and individuals found responsible for WSH infringements[3]. MOM is also undertaking a further review of its regulatory penalties and the legislative framework, to ensure that it is able to send a stronger deterrent message.

7. However, we cannot rely solely on downstream regulation and enforcement activities to achieve a breakthrough in WSH performance. We have to do more upstream rather than only deal with the risks that materialise downstream.

8. This is an important qualitative shift in our thinking and approach to WSH. We must make this shift if we are to achieve our target of less than 1.8 fatalities per 100,000 employees by 2018. Let me illustrate this approach in two areas – (i) upstream risk management and (ii) workplace health.

Upstream Risk Management

9. First, we must institute WSH risk management (or “RM”) further upstream.

10. Today, RM is typically performed for specific work activities when a project is underway on-site, taking into account hazards in the physical work environment and the equipment and tools used. Practitioners performing RM in this manner invariably find that the range of available risk control solutions is limited by the constraints of the physical environment. Often, additional resources have to be expended to resolve a safety issue that would not have existed if appropriate features have been designed and built into the physical work environment.

11. For example, a contractor performing roof maintenance may find that there is no pre-installed anchorage point and lifeline for his workers. He therefore has to decide whether to take the risk and do the work without adequate safety provisions, or install a proper anchorage system to safeguard his workers, at additional cost.

12. What if RM is performed upstream even before the physical work environment is built? Could the desired risk control solutions – in this example pre-installed anchorage system – be constructed as an integral part of the physical work environment?

13. The answer is “yes”, but doing so requires a fundamental shift in the way developers and designers work.

14. Presently, developers and designers tend to leave the identification of WSH risks in building construction and maintenance to the builders and building operators. Performing RM upstream would mean they have to make a conscious effort to collaborate with relevant experts to identify WSH risks in their designs and incorporate the necessary risk control solutions into them upfront. Builders and facility operators will then have significantly fewer risks to manage downstream.

15. This focus on upstream RM has been in practice in countries like the UK and Australia, where designers are required to avoid or minimise foreseeable health and safety risks at the design stage, and developers have legal responsibility to ensure this is done.

16. We have promoted a similar approach in Singapore since 2008 under the Design for Safety (or “DfS”) programme. However, unlike in the UK and Australia where DfS is legislated, we have adopted a voluntary approach.

17. A number of major developers, such as the Land Transport Authority (LTA) in the public sector, and CapitaLand Group, City Developments Limited and Frasers Centrepoint Limited in the private sector have come onboard. LTA, for instance, found that DfS has enabled it to achieve a better safety performance while managing a greatly enhanced volume of large-scale and complex work. It also found that while adopting DfS involved significant changes in risk management practices, the changes were not difficult to implement. Capitaland has also found that DfS contributes to improvements in both worksite safety and productivity.

18. To achieve widespread adoption of DfS and enable significant progress in workplace safety, the Government has decided to mandate DfS, and require developers to ensure designs are safe to build. Based on existing DfS Guidelines, this means that developers could be expected to:

a. First, to institute a DfS design review process involving relevant project stakeholders from the start of the project. It means thinking through the risk factors in construction and maintenance of the building, based on the designs[4]

b. Second, to allocate sufficient time and resources for the project, taking into consideration the risks highlighted in the DfS. In particular, remaining risks identified at the design stage should be included in the tender specifications for main contractors so that they can develop the risk control solutions and estimate costs effectively.

c. And third, to ensure that stakeholders down the supply chain, at both the construction and maintenance stage, understand and factor the risk into their work.

19. An inter-agency workgroup led by MOM and the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) will be formed to work out the implementation details of the mandatory framework for DfS, in consultation with the industry. The regulatory requirements and timeframe for their implemention will be announced by the end of this year.

Safety and Productivity should go hand-in-hand

20. This shift towards upstream RM complements our efforts to improve productivity downstream, in construction. We are already encouraging developers and designers to work with contractors to consider buildability and constructability upstream, in the design phase. Besides WSH risks, the DfS process can also be used to identify opportunities for using new construction methods and improving productivity.

21. There is no inherent tension between WSH and productivity. The experience of countries such as the UK and Australia show that it is possible to achieve high levels of safety and productivity simultaneously.

22. Our agencies sometimes receive feedback that our WSH rules sometimes result in more manpower than necessary, hampering productivity efforts. MOM reviews such feedback carefully. Its studies show that whether safety and productivity are complementary or work against each other depends on critical choices being made.

23. To take a simple example: one way to install lightings on a high ceiling is to use the A-frame ladder, which requires two workers – one to hold on to the ladder, and the other to climb up and install the lightings. This is also considered hazardous work at height[5], so a permit-to-work system is also required of the contractor. However, if he uses a scissors lift, he only requires one worker. And as it has proper barricades, there is no risk of falling, and hence no permit-to-work is required either. A simple change in equipment therefore improves safety while reducing the manpower and effort needed. Fortunately, we are seeing much better take-up of scissors lifts or mobile elevated work platforms (MEWP) in our construction industry[6].

24. However, a wider range of options opens up when safety concerns are considered during the design stage. To use the same example, designers could provide for access by workers to a compartment above the ceiling where the lighting can be installed and subsequently maintained, so that additional lifting equipment is not needed each time.

Addressing Workplace Health Issues of the Future

25. Ensuring workplace safety is one half of the WSH equation. Equal emphasis has to be placed on enhancing workplace health. This is the second area I would like to elaborate on.

26. Earlier this year, we announced plans by the Ministry of Health (MOH), MOM, WSH Council and Health Promotion Board (HPB) to integrate employee well-being into WSH. This holistic approach or what we call “Total WSH” is a logical and necessary step, as safety, health and well-being are closely interconnected.

27. We have to pay more attention to workplace-related health. A study by the WSH Institute shows that work-related ill health cost about $9 billion in 2011. 

28. We can also expect work-related ill health to rise over time, judging from the experience of many developed societies. Like them, our workforce will grow older and become more susceptible to work-related health risks if we do not make adjustments in the work environment. We must therefore take a holistic and balanced approach to both workplace safety and health, and give the utmost priority to well-being of employees, so that we enable Singaporeans to stay healthy and find work fulfilling even as they get older.

29. To help employers start on the Total WSH approach, MOM, HPB, and WSH Council have developed a guide that will be launched today[7].

30. A new Tripartite Oversight Committee (TOC) chaired by Senior Minister of State for Health and Manpower, Dr Amy Khor (with senior representatives from MOH, MOM, HPB, WSH Council, tripartite partners and relevant stakeholders) has also been formed to drive this initiative. The Committee will look into developing relevant industry capabilities and competencies, building awareness of Total WSH and incentivising its adoption among employers.

How You Work is How You Live


31. This year’s National WSH campaign message, “How you work is how you live”, reflects why workplace safety and health matters so much for all of us. It reflects the fact that the habits we form and risks we take at work will not only affect our work but also our lives outside of work.

a. For managers and employers, it means that decisions that impact on the health and well-being of employees matter well beyond the workplace. They impinge on the lives of workers and their families.

b. And for the individual, it means being aware of the responsibilities of both the employer and employee, and of the risks we bring onto our families when we cut corners or take unnecessary risks at work.

32. The WSH Council expects this message to reach more than 100,000 employers and employees directly at workplaces, and many others through a range of outreach channels. 


33. To summarise, our message is simple – WSH is everyone’s responsibility. Together, we have to reinvigorate our efforts to strengthen WSH, and in particular to arrest and reverse the deteriorating WSH performance in the construction sector. At the same time, we must think ahead and prepare ourselves for the increasing salience of workplace health and well-being as our workforce gets older. And finally, we have to impress on everyone, especially employers, that the impact of decisions made at the workplace extends well beyond the workplace, into our lives and those of our loved ones. How we work is how we all live.



[1] Construction accounted for 56% of all workplace fatalities in 2013 (33 out of 59), and 63% of all workplace fatalities from January to March this year (12 out of 19).

[2] BUS was enhanced by expanding the entry criteria and tightening the exit criteria so as to ensure that monitored companies put in place sustained efforts to improve WSH performance.

[3] Heavier penalties include higher fines and pressing for custodial sentences for persons responsible, including managers and company directors, in egregious cases. In addition, the Demerit Points System, which has an impact on the company’s access to foreign workers, is being reviewed to strengthen its deterrent effect.

[4] A competent person could be appointed to facilitate the DfS design review process. This is a legal requirement in the UK.

[5] “Hazardous work at height” means works:

(a)in or on an elevated workplace from which a person could fall;
(b)in the vicinity of an opening through which a person could fall;
(c)in the vicinity of an edge over which a person could fall;
(d)on a surface through which a person could fall; or
(e)in any other place (whether above or below ground) from which a person could fall a distance of more than 3 metres.

[6] Firms used the Construction Productivity and Capability Fund to purchase 523 MEWPs in 2013, compared to just 64 in 2010. 

[7] The guide explains the ‘why’ and ‘what’ of Total WSH and provides broad principles, examples and tools for implementing it at the workplace.