Given the broad scope of this subject on workplace safety, workplace injuries, and the law, this guide will be presented in three parts, each addressing one of the following key areas:
- What is the employer’s “Golden Rule” in the context of workplace safety;
- Is it sufficient for employers to follow industry-wide practices for employee safety measures? And,
- How should employees obtain work injury compensation for workplace accidents
In the first article of the series, we looked at what is the employer’s “Golden Rule” in the context of workplace safety.
In this second article in the series, we shall explore how far employers have to implement this “Golden Rule” in the day-to-day operations of the employees, and whether it is simply sufficient to follow industry-standard practices in preventing workplace injuries.
Unsafe work practices and systems are slow tragedies in the making.
In August 2017, the Straits Times reported on a construction firm that was fined S$130,000 for multiple safety lapses in a worksite. According to the report, such lapses included:
- Eight instances where open sides of the building were not covered or protected by effective guardrails or barriers to prevent a fall from height;
- A lack of handrails on staircases – which exposed workers to the risk of falling off the sides of the staircase; and,
- A lack of emergency lighting on staircases – which increased the risk of workers tripping on the steps; among other blatantly unsafe work practices and systems.
Most alarmingly, this same construction firm was also previously fined S$10,000 and S$19,000 in 2014 and 2015 respectively for similar lapses in safety at a construction worksite. Thankfully, while no construction workers were reported to be injured or killed as a result of the safety lapses, the Straits Times did report in October 2016 that out of the 55 workplace deaths as of that year, all of the incidents could have been prevented – raising the question as to whether employers could do more to improve workplace safety and prevent such workplace injuries from occurring.
Reasonable care must be taken by employers to ensure employee safety
In the judgment issued by the Singapore Court of Appeal in the case of Chandran a/l Subbiah v Dockers Marine Pte Ltd  SGCA 58 – which was discussed in the previous article in this series – the judges noted that employees ordinarily have to rely on the employer when it comes to the standard of safety on the premises, the system of work, and the safe operation of appliances used in the workplace. In addition, the apex court observed that an employee is entitled to expect that an employer has taken reasonable care in evaluating all safety issues before commencing work.
How is “reasonable care” defined?
The guiding principle behind “reasonable care” is that it should use the standard of the reasonable person as a benchmark. In the context of an employer’s liability, this means that the law will measure the behaviour of an employer against the scale of what a reasonable employer – who is neither over-cautious nor over-confident – would observe in that same specific industry.
If I followed industry practices, can I be considered as taking reasonable care to ensure workplace safety?
Arguably, while it is a good practice for an employer to follow industry-standards when it comes to workplace safety and preventing workplace injuries, it does not allow employers to absolve themselves of all liabilities – even if they adhere to such practices. Industry standards are themselves subject to the test of reasonable care.
Moreover, if the industry standard is extremely unsafe or dangerous to the employee, an employer should work even harder to apply and develop new knowledge, practices, and systems to ensure his employee’s safety.
At a basic practical level, one way for an employer to demonstrate reasonable care and therefore discharge their obligations under the “Golden Rule” is by instituting a system where employee supervisors have to perform a preliminary risk assessment at every work site – particularly along the route where workers are expected to perform their tasks. A failure to check for risks in the work environment could result in the employer being found to have breached their duty to provide a safe system of work, as well as a safe place of work.
Are employers liable for all risks at the workplace?
Not really! In paragraph 25 of the Court of Appeal’s ruling on Chandran a/l Subbiah v Dockers Marine Pte Ltd  SGCA 58, the judges emphasised that an employer is “not to be regarded to be an insurer of an employee’s safety under any circumstances”. That is to say, the employer’s duty of care is not absolute. In fact, an employer is not required to bear the consequences of all risks present in the workplace, but merely such risks as would have been reasonable for the employer to have anticipated and addressed.
In this section, we have explored how far employers have to implement this “Golden Rule” in the day-to-day operations of the employees, and whether it is simply sufficient to follow industry-standard practices in preventing workplace injuries. In the third and final section of this guide, we shall go through the steps needed to claim work injury compensation for workplace accidents, and briefly discuss the advantages and disadvantages between choosing to file a claim for workplace injury compensation with the Ministry of Manpower, and choosing to launch a civil lawsuit under common law against your employer.
Have a question on workplace injury disputes?
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This article does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any matter discussed and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and practice in this area. If you require any advice or information, please speak to a practicing lawyer in your jurisdiction. No individual who is a member, partner, shareholder or consultant of, in or to any constituent part of Interstellar Group Pte. Ltd. accepts or assumes responsibility, or has any liability, to any person in respect of this article.