The headline in Straits Times’ story, 20 October 2022

The Straits Times headlined its story “New rules to improve safety of workers in lorries will kick in on Jan 1” (emphasis ours). The news article is based on a statement from the Land Transport Authority (LTA) dated 19 October 2022, which also touted the changes as measures “to improve the safety of transporting workers”.

Read the details of the “new rules” and it is hard to find anything that will meaningfully improve workers’ safety. Such is government spin.

Despite the weighty tone of the announcement, there were only two tiny tweaks.

Firstly, employers have “to provide a rest period of at least 30 minutes for dual-role drivers prior to driving, if the drivers have worked for at least six hours onsite and would be ferrying workers in lorry rear decks thereafter.” (quote from the LTA’s announcement).

What is a dual-role driver? It is one who does other kinds of work, e.g. construction work, but also drives the lorry as needed. Typically, it would be to drive workers back to the dormitory at the end of a work shift.

It is unclear how much good 30 minutes will make to alertness. What if the dual-role worker had been working on site, e.g. hauling concrete slabs, for twelve or thirteen hours (including overtime) till, say, 10pm? Would 30 minutes’ rest really improve his alertness? Where’s the empirical evidence?

One would also note that workers employed exclusively as drivers are not covered by this new rule. Not being dual-role workers, their employers do not have to roster 30 minutes’ rest. These guys could be made to drive almost continuously the whole day, ferrying goods (and loading and unloading them) and then at perhaps the thirteenth hour of their workday, have to ferry the rest of the crew back to the dorm.

Consider too the impact on other workers. If the dual-role guy normally works alongside them and finishes work at the same time as them, then all the workers have to wait around for the dual-role guy to rest his thirty minutes before they can start their journey home. The result? The entire crew goes back to their accommodation 30 minutes later than before and they get 30 minutes less rest during the night.

One way around that would be for the dual-role guy to stop work at least half an hour before the others, but in the nature of construction where workers need to work as a team to get tasks done, it may not be possible to drop one man out of the team prematurely.

The next question is this: what if an employer does not give the dual-role guy his thirty minutes’ rest. How is this violation documented in order to prove his case and correct the situation?

Another question: Is the 30 minutes’ rest treated as paid hours or not?

Vehicle buddies and plastic sheets

As a second (momentous) change, the new rules call for “a vehicle buddy for all lorries with workers in the rear decks, and ensure that the vehicle buddy has been adequately briefed on his/her role. The vehicle buddy should check that the lorry driver is fit to drive and remains alert while driving.”

This is hardly new. Even now, most of the time the lorries have passengers in the front passenger seat, because under the current regulations, not occupying the passenger seats is an offence (when carrying workers in the back). Clearly, if the driver were to drive erratically, these passengers, whose lives depend on the driver, would instinctively do what they can to ensure alertness. Once more, as a measure to “improve safety”, it’s small beer, like announcing that henceforth, architects must include front doors when designing houses.

What is insidious about this focus on driver alertness is the implied pushing of blame onto drivers for accidents and resulting injuries. Drivers may in some circumstances be at fault, but not always. And injuries caused to workers as a result of accidents is not entirely attributable to drivers; regulators who consciously allow humans to be transported on such vehicles without even seatbelts – through an exception in the Road Safety Act that continues to allow this practice – also contribute to the inherent danger and resultant injury, or at least the seriousness of it.

Plastic sheeting

Another part of the announcement was about improving worker welfare. “LTA, with support from MOM, will require all lorries which are used to ferry workers to be fitted with rain covers.”

The Straits Times story had a photograph of a man unfurling a transparent plastic sheet over the back of his lorry.

When the Straits Times asked TWC2 for a comment we said very candidly that the 30-minute rest rule is grossly inadequate. The safety issue isn’t only that of reckless driving. However careful and well-rested the driver, the lorry can still be hit by another vehicle. Humans seated at the back of the lorry risk being flung out.

A lorry carrying both workers and equipment

Moreover, tools and machinery are often carried in the lorry at the same time. When hit by another vehicle, the heavy machinery or sharp tools may shift or fly about and injure someone. Or drums of dangerous chemicals may spill.

The proper solution is to ferry workers in buses.

We need to commit to a timeline and direct resources to make this happen instead of making small pretzel-like tweaks that are insubstantial and do not remedy the problem.

But even getting this pretzel was very difficult, the government claimed. As reported by the Straits Times, Senior Minister of State for Transport Amy Khor said these measures had taken a while to hammer out due to operational complexities. Making this much of a pretzel is asking for rolled eyes.

Lofty speeches

Essentially the issue is a lack of political will coupled with the habit of prioritising cost over blue-collar lives.

It is particularly ironic when just a few days earlier, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong gave a speech bemoaning the fact that Singapore “still places too much of a premium on cognitive abilities – what we deem as ‘head’ work – and does not value sufficiently those engaging in other forms of work, such as technical roles which tend to be more ‘hands-on’ work, or service and community care roles which tend to be more ‘heart’ work.” (The full speech is at this link).

Seeing how “operational complexities” prevent us from doing more than putting up plastic sheets to protect blue-collar workers, it is only natural to wonder if, lofty speeches notwithstanding, the lack of real action is the true story.