Code of Practice for Workplace Safety & Health: What Employers Should Know

Last updated on May 5, 2023

construction employer discussing with workers on safety measure

If you are an employer hoping to better understand your obligations with regard to workplace health and safety in your companies, you should be aware of your additional responsibilities under the new Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) Code of Practice. The formation of the Code of Practice comes on the back of the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) concern regarding a large increase in workplace deaths across 2022 compared to previous years, and aims to reduce this figure to less than 1 in 100,000 people by 2028.

This article will provide you with a brief overview of some of the key aspects of the Code of Practice and what this means for you as an employer. In general, though, the Code of Practice reflects MOM’s stricter safety standards via increasing inspections, conducting Safety Time Outs and introducing “Heightened Security” from late 2022 to early 2023. 

Crucially, with the Code of Practice being seen as supplementary to the Workplace Safety and Health Act (WSHA), it has also been drafted to reflect a new sentencing framework which sees harsher sanctions being imposed on employers that fail to adhere to these employee safety standards.

This article will discuss:

What is the WSH Code of Practice?

The WSH Code of Practice sets the basic legally mandated standards company management must adhere to regarding organisational structure and culture to be in compliance with the WSHA. The Code was gazetted (i.e., passed) in October 2022.

Should companies commit any offence under the Code, courts may take companies’ attempts to mitigate and comply with its Measures and Principles into account during their sentencing, even after an offence has been committed.

Conversely, failure to comply can result in aggravated sentences. For example, under Measure 5 (ensuring sufficient resource allocation to WSH), a failure to adequately repair on-site heavy construction machinery could be interpreted as a breach of the Code of Practice, entailing increased liability for employers that could result in harsher punitive sanctions.

To Whom Does the WSH Code of Practice Apply? 

Overseeing the development of the Code of Practice is the MOM, and the Code mainly applies to company directors and CEOs or equivalents in upper management regardless of industry or size, and whether the particular industry involves manual labour and high risks of physical injury.

Through a report released on the MOM official website, it appears that the government body exercises a wide discretion as to the implementation of the Code and its ability to oversee investigations for breaches or non-adherence.  

The 17 Measures Under the WSH Code of Practice

The Code of Practice introduces 17 safety measures as subsets of the following 4 main principles that are effective and practical for management to implement in preventing workplace accidents:

  1. Ensure that WSH is integrated into business decisions and there is clarity in their roles and responsibilities in leading WSH (Measures 1-2)
  2. Continuously build a strong WSH culture, set the tone, and demonstrate visible leadership in embodying and communicating highly effective WSH standards (Measures 3-9)
  3. Ensure that WSH management systems are effective and reviewed regularly (Measures 10-13)
  4. Empower workers to be actively engaged in WSH (Measures 14-17)

They clarify senior management responsibilities by describing the various steps upper management can take to set good examples and lead from the front when it pertains to achieving exemplary WSH standards.

For a complete list of the 17 Measures, you can refer to the WSH Council website which has a copy of the Code of Practice. A summary of the Measures has been extracted from the Code and replicated below:

As mentioned, the Code of Practice is applicable across all work-related industries. However, the frequency and severity of the various senior management responsibilities under these measures vary with the job territory. Generally, though, there is a practical assumption that low-risk occupations like deskbound jobs will have fewer onerous obligations imposed on them than high-risk occupations like military roles. The following subsections are meant to briefly explain some of the key Measures:

Ensuring timely risk assessments

Measure 11 states that risk assessments should be customised based on the specific organisation’s needs with subsequent control and risk-mitigating measures.

Additionally, one of the stated situations after which such measures need to be reviewed concerns external inclement weather or climate hazards – meaning that greater emphasis on safety protocols is necessary for construction sites or shipyards that could be exposed to water damage or heavy rain. The resulting wear and tear of such dangerous equipment would entail high repair costs that will need to be footed by the relevant companies.

Further, ensuring adequate safety standards means that industrial sector companies cannot purchase dangerous equipment, such as cranes and oil rigs, from disreputable sources and must conduct further inspections to ensure quality control, as the Code of Practice places this burden on upper management.

Ensuring adequate feedback and self-improvement mechanisms

Moreover, the feedback mechanisms of the Code of Practice found in Measures 12-17 ensure that workers themselves are included in the designing and improvement of safety protocols – thereby taking advantage of their on-ground presence.

Specifically, the carrot-stick method that provides incentives for “good WSH behaviour” and meting out disciplinary measures in a timely fashion, encourages compliance with such standards (Measures 12 and 13). For example, handing out rewards (e.g. days off or bonuses) to employees for good work safety habits, and conversely punishing them through fines for possible breaches.

Measure 17, on the other hand, expands the scope of individuals from whom feedback on safety measures should be sought including independent contractors/vendors and union leaders.

Under Measure 11, where the industry is heavily reliant on multiple parties – for example, building construction which comprises various subcontractors and independent workers, upper management will need to be more “hands-on” and actively seek out feedback from them on suggestions to improve workplace safety. This could include discussing and setting specific work safety agenda at meetings as well as seeking advice from personnel at various levels in the workplace hierarchy on possible ways to improve work safety.

How Does the WSH Code of Practice Tie in With the Current Law?

The Code of Practice supplements existing regulations governing workplace health and safety – primarily, the Workplace Safety & Health Act (WSHA). The WSHA requires stakeholders – a broader category of individuals than under the Code of Practice, which includes employees and manufacturers to essentially work towards the same goals of workplace health and safety.

However, while the Code of Practice largely seeks to provide clarity and increase accountability of upper management exclusively, it merely serves as a form of guidance and is not legally binding. The WSHA, on the other hand, is legally binding and includes statutory offences backed by punitive sentences that encompass a far broader variety of individuals in the workplace.

Though, if individuals adhere to the standards under the Code of Practice, this can later be used as substantive evidence of attempts to adopt reasonable, practical channels aimed at preventing breaches from happening. For example, if a company regularly documents its work safety reports monthly instead of bi-annually, this could be viewed as compliance under Measure 3. On the other hand, if a company sanctions its employees for breaches of their internal work safety protocols in a tardy manner, this could be viewed as non-compliance. Conversely, claiming ignorance or a gross lack of non-adherence to the Code of Practice will probably enhance their liability when meting out sentences and raise legal penalties – this could include increased fines and other sanctions.

The 2022 Manta Equipment case particularly discusses how this framework for the abovementioned increased sanctions will be orchestrated. The case considered the liability of the employer for failure to properly erect a construction tower crane. The victim employee was struck by the suspended jib of a tower crane being erected on a vessel at a shipyard that had not been rigged according to the manufacturer’s configuration and subsequently passed away from the injuries sustained. Under the new sentencing framework, the courts will now consider the level of harm and culpability of the accused and offender-specific aggravating or mitigating factors (where compliance/non-compliance with the Code will be effective). 

It will be useful for you, as an employer, to be aware of the extent of your liability under the WSHA in order to properly mitigate risks. For a more detailed overview, you may wish to refer to our other article on the various workplace safety breaches and their corresponding penalties

We do recommend that you consult an employment lawyer at first instance if you require professional advice on your liability under the Code of Practice. This will provide you with reassurance that you have ready access to relevant advice and information at every stage of the legal process, and that all possible options are investigated.

Additionally, you will be saved from having to go through the cumbersome legal administrative process, ensuring that you have time to focus on running your business. Employment lawyers will also be able to offer bespoke advice relevant to your company advising on some of the following:

  • Accident investigation, particularly on the evidence-gathering process
  • Representing you at court should litigation be required
  • Providing practical advice pertaining to the new mental health safety focus
  • Helping craft the work safety training process for employees

Alternatively, you may wish to consult MOM directly for guidance if, for example, you have not committed a breach but merely want to clarify your obligations under the Code of Practice for your specific industry, if it is not already provided for.

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