An incentive to promote work safety backfired on Boomi Murugan. He was not allowed to see a doctor immediately after an injury because, according to the worker, the assistant manager wanted to win the annual award.

Murugan worked for a hydrojetting company. Although he had a face shield on, five tiny metal pellets ricochetted into his left eye via a gap between shield and jaw while he was water-blasting a steel pipe on Saturday, 22 June 2013. Despite the pain, he didn’t report the incident to the shipyard’s safety officer because the assistant manager — let’s call him Logan — had previously laid down a rule: “He say, must go through him for any safety issue,” explains Murugan.

Logan was informed of the accident, but he merely told Murugan to apply eye drops and sleep it off. As for going to a hospital, Logan said it was not possible because medical services weren’t available through a weekend.

The company gives out a $5,000 annual award to teams of workers that have no safety issue in the course of the year. The previous year (2012), Logan’s team had won the award, and each worker on the team received $100.

Unable to work the following day (Sunday), Murugan stayed in the dorm. Monday, he was told to go back to work. “Logan say cannot take two day off (in a row).” But he was still unable to work. “Eye very pain, headache also have.” So, he was told to punch in but sit out the work day. Perhaps this had to do with ensuring a good attendance record for the team.

It wasn’t until Tuesday, three days after the accident, that the company manager — let’s call him Mr Tok — came to the dorm and took Murugan to a clinic in Tuas. Apparently, Logan had finally informed his superior of the accident.

The doctor applied anaesthetic eye drops, then used a “magnet needle” to remove the metal fragments. “No give MC (medical leave certificate),” says Murugan. “Manager (Mr Tok) also say, ‘Only $35 company can pay. Balance you pay yourself.'”

Murugan claims that he had paid a total of more than $150 in medical expenses since, deducted from his salary.

Four of the five pieces of metal were successfully removed at the clinic. A fifth piece remains embedded within the eye. Murugan has lost most vision in that eye; he can see very near objects, but beyond 30 cm, things get hopelessly blur. “This side blind,” says the worker of his present condition.

Despite the treatment on 25 June, he continued to have pain and headache. He asked for permission to see the doctor again or visit a hospital. But Logan told him that the company would not pay for more visits. “He say, ‘You check already. Company say if you check more, you pay yourself.’

“He also say, ‘Hospital cost more than $1,000, but your basic pay only $350. If you have $2,000, I take you to hospital tomorrow.'”

boomi_murugyan_faceThis is not correct. Work Pass Regulations make it clear that employers are responsible for medical care of their foreign workers.

Somewhat amazingly, the company still insisted that he report to work through July and August. “I cry sometimes,” says Murugan. “Headache very bad.”

It wasn’t until September before an increasingly desperate Murugan finally made his own way to another clinic, which referred him to the National Eye Centre for specialist treatment. But has the delay in treatment cost him his vision in his left eye? Who was responsible, through enforcing rigid rules and providing misinformation, for the delay?

It was also in September before Murugan began to search for outside advice, and learnt about filing an accident report with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), which he did through a lawyer — though, it should be added, no lawyer is needed for this process. Any worker can do so himself. Transient Workers Count Too can help if he has language difficulties.

Within days, a fellow worker passed him a message to say that the company was planning to repatriate him immediately. What started as an injury issue is now rapidly escalating into a crisis of accommodation (where is he going to stay now?), medical expenses (will MOM enforce the rule that employer must pay for medical treatment?) and survival (where’s the money to come from to subsist from day to day?).

Unfortunately, it is a trajectory many workers before Murugan have experienced. There doesn’t seem to be enough deterrent punishment of employers who shirk their responsibilities and fail to do the right thing by their employees at the very outset.

This story also raises the question: Do safety awards actually promote safety, or do they encourage cover-ups?