PM Lee Hsien Loong at the World Congress on Safety and Health at Work 2017

PM Lee Hsien Loong | 3 September 2017

PM Lee Hsien Loong made the opening remarks at the World Congress on Safety and Health at Work 2017 at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre on 3 September 2017.


International Labour Organization (ILO) Director-General Guy Ryder. International Social Security Association (ISSA) President Dr Joachim Breuer. Ministers. Ladies and Gentlemen.

I am very happy to launch the 21st World Congress on Safety & Health at Work 2017, which is being held for the first time in Southeast Asia. I am very glad to welcome a wide representation of delegates from over 100 countries across 6 continents. It shows that the safety and health of workers is a common cause for all countries. The ILO estimates that every year 2.8 million workers die from work-related injuries, and close to a million people are injured every day. This is far too many. Workplace accidents and injuries are almost always preventable. Every fatality means a family broken, and deprived of a breadwinner. Every injury and illness means pain and suffering for the worker. Therefore, it is our duty to reduce accidents and injuries to the absolute minimum, by instilling safety and health consciousness, and safe and healthy work practices. It is not only in the workers’ interest to improve workplace safety and health. It is in the interest of businesses. Because workplace accidents and injuries result in economic losses. In fact, the ILO estimates that about 4% of the world’s annual GDP is lost as a consequence of work-related injuries and accidents. Therefore, I am heartened to see a good representation from both industry and workers at the Congress today.

This Congress is an opportunity for us to learn from one another, and to help those that are catching up to shorten their learning curves. In Singapore, we started our journey to comprehensively improve workplace safety and health more than a decade ago. In 2004, our workplace fatality rate was 5 per 100,000 employed persons – higher than many other developed countries. We also had a series of major industrial accidents which resulted in fatalities. When we looked deeper into the problem, we realised that there were many instances of ‘near misses’ – accidents that could easily have happened but did not only because of fortuitous circumstances.

These were reflective of the inadequate workplace safety and health practices at the time. We decided that the status quo was not acceptable. We had to do something about it and we would make workplace safety and health a major priority for the Government. We faced some challenges that were unique to our circumstances. Many of our workplace accidents were in sectors with large numbers of foreign workers, like the construction and marine industries. The foreign workers spoke different languages. They had different cultures and work practices. Staff turnover was high and it made it harder for employers to build a strong safety and health culture, and it increased the risk of accidents. Also, many companies in these industries were small. They lacked the scale and the management bandwidth to implement good workplace safety and health practices. So we had to tackle several aspects of the problem at the same time.

In 2006, we introduced a new Workplace Safety and Health Act. We started programmes to help our small and medium enterprises improve their capabilities in workplace safety and health. The Ministry of Manpower changed regulations to be less prescriptive and more outcomes based, to allow employers more scope for better risk management and innovation. We formed an International Advisory Panel on workplace safety. In 2008, we set up a Workplace Safety and Health Council, comprising employers, unions and the Government to foster greater industry ownership and to widen our outreach to workers. In the same year, 2008, we set a target to reduce fatality rates down to 1.8 per 100,000 employed persons within a decade which means by 2018, next year. With the right approach and framework in place and with a political emphasis given to this task we have made progress and we should soon reach this target. Last year Singapore’s workplace fatality rate was down to 1.9. But this is still not the best that can be achieved. OECD countries like the Netherlands, the UK, and Sweden, all have workplace fatality rates of less than which are less than 1.0 per 100,000 employed persons and there is no reason why Singapore cannot be as good as them.

So we have decided to set a new target: to reduce Singapore’s rate to below 1.0 per 100,000 in ten years’ time and that means before 2028. Other countries have made the same journey and succeeded. Finland halved its rate over 11 years, from 1.8 in 2002 to 0.9 in 2013. We will have to work hard, but I am confident that we can achieve the new target.

How will we do so? First, by maintaining our tripartite approach to workplace safety and health, involving employers, workers, and the Government. For employers, ensuring a safe and healthy workplace is sound business policy. It is part of running a business well. If you take good care of your employees, make sure that they are well rested, and train them well in safety procedures, they will be more productive. If safety and health issues do arise, a good company will remedy them quickly and make sure they do not happen again. Workers, too, play an important role. They are the ones most familiar with the work processes, and can take ownership of their own safety and health. For example, by raising the alarm if they discover potential hazards at work or by going for training courses, for example at NTUC Learning Hub, which provides many courses on workplace safety and health. The trade union movement has fully supported the improvement of workplace safety and health. It will continue to engage workers and companies, to encourage them to adopt better monitoring and reporting practices, including reporting near miss accidents or incidents.

For its part, the Government will take the lead, and institute rules and incentives for companies to emphasise workplace safety and health. We will work closely with industries with higher accident rates, like construction, marine, and logistics. These are the industries which we have a problem in Singapore. At the same time, we will continue to make a push in other industries too, so as to build a national economy-wide culture of safety and health. But we cannot solve this problem just by imposing more regulations. It is impractical to add new regulations each time there is a workplace accident. Instead, we do an investigation and the investigation will find out what went wrong. Beyond a point, more rules will result in heavier burdens 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.

Ultimately, we want to encourage companies to take a holistic approach towards workplace safety and health. In Singapore, we call this the Total Workplace Safety and Health (Total WSH), because there is a strong correlation between a healthy workforce and a safe workplace. Ill health is a key contributory factor in more than one third of our work-related fatalities in Singapore. But it is not just about the fatalities. The prevalence of workplace illnesses and chronic conditions is itself a problem that should be addressed. Conditions like hearing loss, respiratory diseases, carpal tunnel syndrome, and so on, can occur in the course of work, and can be prevented with a little bit of effort. As our workforce ages, workplace health will become an even greater concern for us. Some of our companies are already implementing good initiatives. For example Samwoh, a medium-sized local construction company. It set up a Total Workplace Safety and Health committee to identify gaps and early interventions and now has regular interventions for its workers, like providing better and more ergonomic equipment and organising regular health talks to encourage its employees to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

But many smaller companies are too small to intervene in a meaningful way by themselves. So to support them, the Ministry of Manpower is piloting a Total WSH Services Centre in Woodlands. The Centre will provide a one-stop service to support and advise some 300 companies employing 3,000 workers. If this approach works well, we will set up more of these centres in other industrial areas in Singapore.

Secondly, we want to encourage companies to use technology more pervasively, to reduce the risks of workplace accidents and ill-health. Technology can help to reduce human errors which cause workplace accidents. For example, Lendlease, a property and infrastructure company. It uses drones to monitor site activities and to plan works. It deploys facial recognition systems to allow only trained workers to access construction sites, as well as to track hours worked to ensure that workers have sufficient rest. Some transport and logistics companies have installed devices to monitor driving habits. If the driver is falling asleep, an alert will be triggered, the seat will vibrate and the driver, hopefully will wake up. It will also generate regular reports to study and analyse driving habits, identify poor drivers, and send them for retraining. Also I would say identify inappropriate work patterns, assignment, schedules and improve those so that the drivers can drive safely.

To encourage our companies to use technology more and to innovate, MOM will launch a Workplace Safety and Health Technology Challenge. We will fund companies and research institutes to develop new technological solutions. As a start, the Challenge will focus on vehicular safety, which is currently our top cause of workplace fatalities. These are all avoidable accidents, avoidable fatalities, and if we put our mind to it, we will bring the numbers down. Using technology to improve all aspects of our lives, including workplace safety and health, is part of our plans to become a Smart Nation.

In Singapore, we take WSH very seriously. Human capital is Singapore’s only resource. Every life counts, every worker matters and when an accident occurs, we investigate it thoroughly, identify the underlying causes, learn from our mistakes, and do our best to avoid doing it again. This World Congress will help us to raise awareness and build capability for all participating countries. I hope that you will make full use of this meeting to interact with one another, brainstorm new ideas, and develop fruitful collaborations. I wish you all a successful Congress. Thank you very much.