By Koh Jie Min, based on an interview in June 2018
Balal comes across as soft spoken when I meet him for this interview. He gives me a wry smile as he points to two long, white scars on his fingers, and recounts his tale. It’s a not unheard-of story: Leaving his wife and two young children behind, he came to Singapore in mid-2017 in search of work. Jobs are scarce in Bangladesh.
At an interview in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, senior management from a marine engineering company offered him a job as a scaffold worker. He accepted the offer, hoping to earn enough in Singapore to provide for his family.
However, things started going awry upon Balal’s arrival in Singapore. He was sent to start work as a grinder, a far cry from the scaffolding work he agreed to.
Of course, for such dangerous work as metal grinding, safety training and safety equipment is a must. Balal was provided training — in painter safety and general safety. This obviously taught him next to nothing about the specific dangers and necessary safety practices when operating power tools used in steel and metal grinding work.
Safety equipment was also an issue. At start, the company provided him with a single set of safety goggles and ear plugs. However, that was the full extent of the safety equipment provided to him, and according to Balal, the company refused to provide any replacement in the event of breakage. Due to the nature of grinding work, hazards such as flying shrapnel from the rapidly spinning cutting wheel of the grinders caused accelerated wear and tear to his safety equipment, forcing Balal to replace his own equipment as they became unserviceable over the course of his work. (See footnote).
Balal then had to buy his own replacements from third party vendors, with little assurance of the quality of the purchases. In the end, Balal paid around $200 in total for safety equipment, a huge sum for someone earning just a few hundred dollars a month. Did he, to save money, choose inferior quality replacements? He can’t possibly say as he’s not in a position to judge quality.
With such shortcomings in company policy, it cannot be surprising that an accident may happen. And it did, with Balal the unfortunate victim. Showing me the scars on his injured hand, he tells me what happened. In February this year, barely nine months into his job, Balal cut his hand on the grinder wheel while working on a scaffolding platform. He subsequently fell from the platform onto another part of the scaffolding, causing him to hurt his back as well. He ended up with seven stitches on his hand, but even after having sought medical treatment from his company clinic, the chronic pain from his injuries has prevented him from continuing to work.
Even today, Balal says he continues to suffer from the after-effects of the accident. Pain in his back and hand continue to plague him. With no income to speak off, Balal has been unable to send any money back home to his family since the accident. It is sad to think that he came here with hopes to improve the lives of his family back home, but now he is unable to do so. Stranded alone in a foreign country with no work and unable to even provide for himself, Balal’s future remains uncertain.
Unlike in the USA where the Occupational Health and Safety Act explicitly says that employers must provide workers with all necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), Singapore law is less clear about this requirement.
Our Workplace Safety and Health Act merely says in Section 12 that
12(1): It shall be the duty of every employer to take, so far as is reasonably practicable, such measures as are necessary to ensure the safety and health of his employees at work.
and in Subsection (3)
12(3): For the purposes of subsection (1), the measures necessary to ensure the safety and health of persons at work include —
(a) providing and maintaining for those persons a work environment which is safe, without risk to health, and adequate as regards facilities and arrangements for their welfare at work;
(b) ensuring that adequate safety measures are taken in respect of any machinery, equipment, plant, article or process used by those persons;
(e) ensuring that those persons at work have adequate instruction, information, training and supervision as is necessary for them to perform their work.
Is the duty of employers, as prescribed by law, discharged when employers simply tell workers that they must go out, buy their own safety equipment and use them? Or does the duty of employers require employers to provide the needed PPE?
A clue can be seen from Section 18 of the same Act. It says:
18.—(1) An employer shall not —
(a) deduct, or allow to be deducted, from the sum contracted to be paid by him to any employee of his; or
(b) receive, or allow any agent of his to receive, any payment from any employee of his,
in respect of anything to be done or provided by him in accordance with this Act in order to ensure the safety, health or welfare of any of his employees at work.
It seems to suggest that employers shall not push the cost of ensuring safety onto his employees. The intent of the law can reasonably be read to forbid making employees buy their own safety equipment, but it would certainly be better if such a ban is clearly articulated in statutory law.