The role of unions in workplace safety

On  10 October this year, a 54-year-old bus driver named Ah Long was driving his SBS Transit Bus along Defu Lane, when he met with an accident that cost him his life.

His unfortunate passing was also the 39th workplace fatality this year. As of the time of writing, the number of workplace deaths for 2022 stands at 40, already surpassing 2021’s total number of 37. According to the Ministry of Manpower’s data, there were already 28 fatalities in the first half of 2022. The construction sector was the biggest contributor of fatalities, with 10 deaths in the six-month period. 

Despite the increase in fatalities, the number of major and minor injuries went below pre-COVID levels, falling to 8.7 per 100,000 workers, from 9.6 per 100,000 workers in the same period in 2021.

The record number of fatalities had prompted the Ministry of Manpower to introduce the “Heightened Safety Period” from 1 September 2022 to 23 February 2023. 

The increased measures are to address workplace safety and health (WSH)lapses and to review current measures, and penalise CEOs of companies that fail to abide by WSH regulations.

Ah Long, who had worked for SBS Transit for more than 20 years, also happened to be a union of representative of the National Transport Workers’ Union (NTWU). 

According to a Facebook post by NTUC Assistant Secretary-General Melvin Yong, the NTWU is supporting Ah Long’s family in these difficult times.  

How unions can help prevent workplace deaths and injuries

Unions play an important role in boosting workplace safety and health standards. 

While at an NTUC event held on 1 November, he noted that the majority of workplace fatalities involved workers in non-unionised companies, or subcontractors at workplaces occupied by non-unionised companies. 

Studies show that unionised workers and companies are integral to better workplace safety outcomes.

In a study of compensation injury data from 2012 to 2018 by the Institute for Work and Health in Ontario, Canada, it found that unionisation is associated with a 25 per cent lower rate of injury.

The study noted that unionised workers have better access to safety and skills training provided by their employers and the unions themselves, thereby improving safety records.

Mr Yong also noted that unionised workers feel more empowered to speak up on safety issues, and unions are able to influence companies to prioritise safety and health at work.

Unions are a key channel to garner ground feedback and concerns on workplace safety and health, he adds. 

Senior Minister of State Zaqy Mohamad also called for unions to play their part in reducing fatalities to less than one for every 100,000 workers by 2028, a goal set out by the Workplace Safety and Health Council, according to a statement he made on 1 November.

“The unions, as the eyes and ears on the ground, play a key role in providing a trusted channel of feedback for workers to raise their concerns. If management is not listening, I hope the union can pick up and make sure that they give the feedback to the right channels so that we [the Government] can pick it up,” said Mr Zaqy.

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