Australia: Construction Death Numbers High Due To WH&S Breaches In The APAC Region

Last Updated: 3 October 2018
Article by Michael Tooma

In recent months we have seen a high number of construction deaths due to health and safety breaches in Australia. This development is not just limited to Australia – they are high in the construction industry in the APAC region. The recent prosecutions, increase of issuing fines and government and regulator initiatives evidence a trend to focus not only reducing fatalities in construction but also the want to hold contractors, and managing directors thereof, accountable as a means of achieving corporate compliance.

Key takeaways include:

  • The number of construction fatalities, specifically from falls from heights, is high in the APAC region.
  • Governments and Regulators are recognising the issue and implementing new measures, some preventative and others deterrent – issuing fines and instigating prosecutions, to address it.
  • Regulators are prosecuting offenders using a two-pronged approach of both general criminal laws and health and safety laws.

Workplace fatality rates are dropping. The workplace fatality rate in Singapore in 2017 was the lowest since 2004, according to a joint press release by the Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) Council, WSH Institute and Ministry of Manpower.1

There were 42 workplace fatalities last year, down from 66 in 2016, resulting in a fatal injury rate of 1.2 per 100,000 employed persons. This is a significant improvement after fatal injury rates stagnated at 1.9 per 100,000 employed persons in 2015 and 2016.

However, similar to Australia, it is in the construction industry in which the highest number of fatalities occur and resulting from falls from height.2 The latest figures from the WSH Council show that there were six worksite deaths in the first five months of this year, up from two in the same period last year. These incidents were as a result of health and safety breaches.

The following very recent prosecution is a prime example.

The two-lane viaduct from Tampines Expressway to Pan-Island Expressway in Upper Changi collapsed on 14 July last year, resulting in the death of Chinese worker Chen Yinchuan, 31, while 10 others were injured. Five individuals and the main contractor, Or Kim Peow Contractors, were charged under the Building Control Act and the Workplace Safety and Health Act for their roles in the collapse. They were aware of cracks in the corbels – support structures – of piers 40 and 41 of the viaduct, but had failed to do proper risk assessments of the affected corbels and take measures to ensure the safety and health of employees.

This is just one example of many due to workplace health and safety breaches. In May 2018 alone, a 44-year-old foreign worker from India died at a site in Singapore, due to failing through an opening and landing 11 metres below, while another worker from China, also 44, died after a fall at a construction site. The latest relevant case occurred on 27 July 2018 which involved a collapse in a workers' dormitory and a fence wall at a construction site in China's Anhui province killing six people and injuring another 12.

Regulators are similarly stamping down on companies by conducting inspections. Ministry of Manpower, Singapore, held an inspection operation covering 200 construction sites from April to early May 2018 and announced a subsequent operation covering 500 construction sites following then.3 On 29 June, Ministry announced more workplace safety inspections in the next two months.

As of 1 July 2018, 330 of the 500 inspections have been completed and four stop-work orders issued.4 A total of 78 composition fines, adding up to $86,000 have also been issued.5

In Australia, the vast majority of workplace fatalities occur in three industries, with fatalities in construction being the third highest (following transport, postal and warehousing, and Agriculture, forestry and fishing and construction).

The latest figures from SafeWork NSW show that between 2007 and 2016, falls from a height were the main cause of fatalities in both the building construction and construction services industry sub-divisions.6 The figures further reveal that falls from height incidents had more than tripled in the past five years. A self-employed plumber of 24 years from Kirrawee, south of Sydney, fell 10 metres in April 2017 after climbing a ladder erected on scaffolding which collapsed. He broke 11 ribs, chipped two vertebrae, punctured a lung, suffered a broken diaphragm and spent a month in hospital.

The figures prompted a 12-month State government safety blitz which started in November last year. SafeWork inspectors visited more than 460 construction sites in NSW, and issued $115,000 in fines over breaches to safety laws. This was the first time SafeWork inspectors had the power to issue on-the-spot fines of up to $3,600 to construction companies that failed to protect workers from the risk of falls. Some examples since late last year include:

  • A $75,000 fine after a carpenter suffered serious brain injury after falling through an unprotected stairwell;
  • A $135,000 fine after a man fell through an uncovered area without danger signs;
  • A $405,000 fine after an apprentice died after falling while building a walkway platform; and
  • An $80,000 fine after a worker fell more than three metres at a Mascot building site and suffered head, spinal and chest injuries.

Since 1 November 2017, SafeWork NSW has prosecuted six construction companies through the District Court which has issued a total of $780,000 in fines.

This trend is evident across Australia and evident in Court prosecutions. In March 2018, for example, the Supreme Court in Queensland delivered a judgment against an employer in a major work health and safety proceeding. A young man was fatally electrocuted when he was asked to hold a temporary construction switchboard during its installation. Tragically, no safety switch had been installed and fuses designed to prevent electrocution were incorrectly installed. For the charges of manslaughter and perjury, the Court sentenced the director to seven years jail, with a non-parole period of two years.7

A notable nation-wide initiative is the Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012–2022. It put forward three national targets including a reduction in the number of worker fatalities as well as incidence rate of claims, and those for musculoskeletal disorders, resulting in weeks off work. The Strategy was implemented due to "the high levels of death and injury to construction workers" and as "a national priority".

Comments

What is remarkable is that while fatalities in the workplace are in decline, it is fatalities in construction which contribute to the numbers in the APAC region.

The prosecutions emphasise a trend of assigning greater accountability to contractors and their managing directors for serious breaches of health and safety laws. The current state of play in the APAC region is clear – Regulators have a repertoire of provisions available to them following a health and safety incident and are prepared to prosecute for non-compliance.

The subsequent increase in inspections at worksites throughout will hopefully prompt contractors to comply with the laws, and reduce the number of fatalities on construction sites.

Footnotes

1 https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/singapore-sees-lowest-workplace-fatality-rate-since-2004-9954422.

2 Mr John Ng, chairman of the Workplace Safety and Health Council, also recognising the other key issue of vehicle accidents.

3 https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/11-workers-have-died-on-the-job-so-far-this-year.

4 Mr Zaqy remarked at an event organised by Singapore Contractors Association Limited and Singapore Institution of Safety Officers.

5 https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/manpower/more-workplace-safety-checks-to-be-done.

6 Key Work Health and Safety Statistics Australia 2017; Work-related Traumatic Injury Fatalities Report 2016.

7 R v Day [2018].

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