The topic of whether workers should continue to be transported at the back of lorries has made the news recently and will continue to do so. There have also been impassionate arguments from those for and against such manner of transportation.

Incidentally, our local media also carried recent reports on a foreign worker who was successful in his claim against his employer for having injured himself while alighting from a lorry.

This write-up sheds some light on what employers and their employees can expect in safety standards when workers are transported in lorries.

The salient points of the case are as follows:-

The Injured Worker's Case

Mr Murugan, a 37-year-old Indian national, was the fourth man to alight from the lorry that was transporting him and his co-workers to another lorry en route to a work location. At the time, the tailboard of the lorry in question was not lowered, so he used both his hands to hold onto it. He then used his left leg to step over the tailboard, so he could place it on a foothold on the lorry. However, Mr Murugan said that he was pushed either by a co-worker or co-workers who were waiting to alight. He lost his balance and fell to the ground, suffering injuries as a result.

The Employer's Defence

Mr Murugan's employers denied his claim. According to them, Mr Murugan slipped and fell while alighting from the lorry - the accident was caused or contributed by Mr Murugan's own carelessness in failing to watch his footing or step before alighting.

Mr Murugan's employers added (among other things) that:-

  • The tailboard of the lorry was also not lowered as it would prevent alighting workers from placing their feet on the step at the back of the lorry, which helped them alight smoothly.
  • No supervision was required as "the process of workers alighting from the lorry is so simple and straightforward". To do so would put an excessive obligation on employers.
  • An employer is not required to constantly supervise every minute detail and work process of the employee, especially given Mr Murugan's vast experience.

The Court's Findings

The tailboard of the lorry ought to have been lowered.

Without lowering the tailboard, the steps involved in alighting from a lorry effectively required a worker like Mr Murugan to "execute an acrobatic move" by hoisting one leg over the tailboard to lower himself at a height of more than 1m and then swing his other leg over to the ground.

The Court held that "while such physical manoeuvres might be easily accomplished by the majority of the able-bodied workers, it is certainly not without risks as this accident has amply demonstrated".

Additionally, it was "not inconceivable" that Mr Murugan could have been accidentally pushed, with 20 men standing up from their seats on both sides of the lorry and eager to get off, resulting in Mr Murugan losing his balance and falling. The lorry in question was not meant to carry more than 22 persons at the time so there appears to have been some overcrowding as well (given the evidence that there were 24 workers at the back of the lorry during the material time).

The Court also noted the employer's concession that it had never had a safe procedure for transporting workers in numbers.

Accordingly, the Court found that there was no proper and safe system in place for the safe access and/or exit from the deck of the lorry at the material time.

In finding Mr Murugan's employers liable, the Court held that there was clearly a breach of duty by the employer in failing to put in place a system of safe access to and from the lorry deck. This caused the accident leading to Mr Murugan's injuries.

What's Going To Happen After the Court's Decision

On the basis that the Court's decision has not been appealed, damages i.e. the amount of compensation to be paid to Ramalingam Murugan for his injuries suffered as a result of the accident, will be assessed.

Brief thoughts

1. For employers:

In its advisory on the safe transportation of workers, the Ministry of Manpower has stated that employers should:

  • Set the right tone and culture to emphasise the importance of safety, so that workers do not feel pressured to rush;
  • Ensure safe means of access to and fro the lorry deck;
  • Avoid ferrying workers together with heavy goods/equipment;
  • Avoid incentives or disincentives that may encourage drivers to rush or drive recklessly;
  • Be prepared to activate a backup driver where necessary; and
  • Provide avenues for reporting unsafe driving (e.g. display a hotline number to report unsafe driving).

While transportation of workers via lorry is set to continue in the near future, the Court's decision re-emphasizes a safe system of work is required, even for boarding and alighting from a lorry.

It appears that one such requirement for workers alighting a lorry would be for the tailboard to be lowered.

A foothold should also be installed for workers to be directed to place their foot/ feet while dismounting from the lorry.

Interestingly, Mr Murugan's employers argued that the tailboard of the lorry was also not lowered as it would prevent alighting workers from placing their feet on the step at the back of the lorry, which helped them alight smoothly.

The design of the tailboard/footholds in lorries may have to be re-looked if lowering the tailboard blocks or prevents physical or visual access to such footholds.

2. For employees like Ramalingam Murugan:

The Ministry of Manpower has also stated that workers in lorry rear decks should:

  • Board and alight the lorry with care. Do not rush or jump down from the lorry;
  • Not move around when the lorry is moving;
  • Report defects on vehicle to employers or driver so that timely repairs can be carried out;
  • Report unsafe driving to their employers or the authorities; and
  • Report unsafe behaviour of other lorry passengers during commute to their employers.

On a personal note, I sincerely hope there is a safe space for workers like Ramalingam Murugan to query their supervisors or employers, without fear of losing employment, whether it is safe to carry out any work or actions as simple as getting down from a lorry.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.