Penalties for Workplace Safety and Health Offences in Singapore

employee aobut fall upon slipping on water puddle

As we enter the second half of 2022, workplace safety and health present a growing concern. The number of workplace fatalities has already reached a toll of 36, close to the 37 fatalities recorded in the whole of 2021, and surpassing the 30 deaths recorded in the whole of 2020.

Incidentally, the General Division of the High Court in the recent case of Public Prosecutor v Manta Equipment (S) Pte Ltd [2022] (PP v Manta Equipment) has offered a clarificatory pronouncement on the likely penalties that may be imposed for workplace safety and health offences in Singapore. 

The Workplace Safety and Health Act (WSHA) is the relevant legislation governing the safety, health and welfare of employees in Singapore. It sets out the safety and health obligations as well as offences concerning employers and other stakeholders at the workplace (discussed below). 

However, while the WSHA is helpful in providing stakeholders with the appropriate measures that must be implemented to ensure a safe working environment, the broad range of penalties provided under the WSHA has contributed to much uncertainty.

This article will provide an overview of the sentences applicable to various workplace safety and health violations under the WSHA, having particular regard to the revised sentencing framework for WSHA offences set out in PP v Manta Equipment.

It will cover:

What are the Workplace Safety and Health Obligations of Employers and Other Stakeholders in Singapore?

Workplace safety and health obligations refer to the duties of the various stakeholders in the workplace. These stakeholders include employers, employees, manufacturers and occupiers of the workplace.

The following table provides a general summary of the obligations that may be owed by the various stakeholders in the workplace:

Stakeholders Workplace safety and health obligations owed
Employers Take reasonably practicable measure to ensure the safety and health of their employees and persons present in the workplace including:

  • Maintaining adequate facilities and arrangements at work to provide a safe working environment
  • Ensuring that adequate safety measures are implemented in respect of any machinery, equipment or process used at work
  • Ensuring that persons are not exposed to hazards arising at work including the processing, disposal, storage or transport of materials
  • Use any equipment, appliance, protective clothing or other things provided in a manner so as to provide the intended protection for their own safety
  • Cooperate with their employer to comply with the WSHA
  • Ensure that information about the safe use of the machinery, equipment or hazardous substance supplied to the workplace is available to any person receiving them for use at work
  • Ensure that the supplied machinery, equipment or substance is safe and does not present a health risk
  • Ensure the examination and testing of items supplied
Occupiers of the workplace Take reasonably practicable measures to ensure that the workplace premises, access points to the workplace and items kept at the workplace are safe and pose no risks to the health of all persons present within those premises.

What are the WSHA Offences?

While WSHA offences include acts or unsafe work conditions that present a potential harm to persons or property, commonly reported WSHA offences that we come across in the media often involve casualties as a consequence of such practices. These may involve incidences of workers falling from height, stepping onto unsecured structures, or being exposed to chemical or biological agents at work. 

For example, in July 2022, a construction worker suffered fatal injuries while standing on the rear counterweight of a forklift to tie an electric cable. This accident occurred while the worker was using the machinery for something other than its intended purposes and demonstrates a failure on the part of the employee to use the equipment in a safe manner. Where such failures follow an employer’s failure to ensure that adequate processes are implemented so that proper safety instructions are conveyed, the employer would also have committed an offence under the WSHA.

What are the Penalties For WSHA Offences in Singapore?

Individuals may be liable to penalties, including a fine and/or imprisonment, for offences under the WSHA. 

The possible penalties provided under the WSHA for offences relating to the violation of workplace stakeholder duties are a fine or an imprisonment term. The various offences specify differing maximum fines and terms of imprisonment and contemplate the possibility of enhanced penalties for repeat offences.

For instance, in 2015, the employer company responsible for a fatal lab explosion caused by inadequate safety measures was fined $340,000. In another case, the employer company was fined $250,000. In this second case, an explosion occurred due to the employer’s disregard of certain written warnings and failure to implement effective safety measures.

In both of these cases, the relevant provisions which prescribe the penalties to be imposed against corporate offenders state that the maximum fine that can be imposed is $50,000. However, the WSHA offers little guidance as to the manner in which the particular quantum of fine or duration of imprisonment should be determined. Prior to the judgement in PP v Manta Equipment, the broad prescription of penalties under the WSHA was often said to suffer from a lack of clarity in application.

How are WSHA Offences Investigated in Singapore?

The WSHA falls within the purview of the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and section 7 of the WSHA confers the Minister of Manpower (Minister) with the power to appoint a Commissioner for Workplace Safety and Health (the Commissioner). 

As the regulatory authority, when the MOM is alerted to a workplace accident, the Commissioner may direct an inspector to investigate the incident. The Minister may also appoint an Inquiry Committee to hold an inquiry into the circumstances in which the workplace accident or dangerous occurrence had occurred.

How Will Offenders be Sentenced in Singapore For WSHA Offences? 

Case study: PP v Manta Equipment

In PP v Manta Equipment, a worker was struck by the suspended jib of a tower crane which was being erected on a vessel at a shipyard. The jib had not been rigged in accordance with the configuration provided by the manufacturer, resulting in the worker’s death from his injuries. The deceased’s employer, Manta Equipment, was charged with violating section 12(1) of the WSHA in failing to take reasonably practicable measures necessary to ensure the safety and health of its employees.

In particular, Manta Equipment failed to implement safe work procedures for the erection of a tower crane, as well as an adequate lifting plan. Manta Equipment pleaded guilty to and was eventually convicted under section 12(1) of the WSHA for violating its duties as an employer at the workplace. The District Court Judge sentenced Manta Equipment to a fine of $220,000 for the offence. 

Subsequently, the Prosecution filed an appeal to the General Division of the High Court. The appeal was on the basis that the appropriate sentencing framework to be applied for a breach of employer duties under section 12(1) of the WSHA ought to be reconsidered.

The sentencing framework set out in PP v Manta Equipment

On appeal, the High Court applied the following 2-step framework in determining the appropriate sentencing framework (Framework) for offences under Part 4 of the WSHA:

  1. Determine the level of harm and culpability of the accused in order to derive the indicative starting point; and
  2. Calibrate the starting sentence according to offender-specific aggravating or mitigating factors.

1) Determining the level of harm and culpability of the accused

Under the first step of the Framework, the sentencing judge is to determine the level of harm and culpability. This then informs the determination of the indicative starting point for the appropriate penalty to be imposed as illustrated in the table below:

Low Moderate High
Harm Low Up to $75,000 $75,000 to $150,000 $150,000 to $225,000
Moderate $75,000 to $150,000 $150,000 to $225,000 $225,000 to $300,000
High $150,000 to $225,000 $225,000 to $300,000 $300,000 to $500,000

To evaluate the level of harm, the following factors will be considered:

  • The seriousness of the harm risked;
  • The likelihood of that harm arising; and
  • The number of people likely to be exposed to the risk of the harm.

In terms of assessing the culpability of the offender, these are the factors that will be taken into consideration:

  • The number of breaches or failures;
  • The nature of the breaches;
  • The seriousness of breaches;
  • Whether the breaches were systemic or isolated; and
  • Whether the breaches were intentional, rash or negligent.

In evaluating the potential for harm in relation to the accident which resulted in the death of Manta Equipment’s employee, the court considered that the actual occurrence of death warranted the level of harm to fall under the high harm category. This was because the operation involved rigging a massive jib such that any accident arising would very likely result in serious injury or death. 

Regarding Manta Equipment’s negligence in failing to implement safe work procedures and a lifting plan, the court considered its culpability to have been moderate on the scale illustrated in the table above. This was because the safety work procedure that was followed had deviated from what the equipment’s manufacturer had provided and although a lifting plan was implemented, it was inadequate. 

Based on the assessment that Manta Equipment was moderately culpable and that its conduct was one of high risk, the court considered that the indicative sentence based on the table above would be a fine in the range of between $225,000 and $300,000.

2) Calibrate the starting sentence according to offender-specific aggravating or mitigating factors

Once the indicative starting point for the penalty to be imposed is made out in step 1, the sentencing judge can then proceed to calibrate the starting sentence according to offender-specific aggravating and mitigating factors. Some of these factors are as follows:

Aggravating factors
  • Serious actual harm (including death) resulted
  • The offender had cut cost at the expense of the safety of the workers
  • There was deliberate concealment of the illegal nature of the activity
  • The offender has a poor record in respect of workplace safety and health
  • There was falsification of documentation or licences
  • There was a deliberate failure to obtain or comply with relevant licences in order to avoid scrutiny by the authorities
Mitigating factors
  • The offender has voluntarily taken steps to remedy the problem
  • The offender provided a high level of cooperation with the authorities
  • There is a timely plea of guilt
  • The offender has a good safety and health record

In PP v Manta Equipment, the court agreed with the sole aggravating factor identified by the District Court Judge – that serious actual harm had resulted as a result of the fatal accident – as well as the mitigating factors considered in the District Court. These mitigating factors included the early guilty plea on the part of Manta Equipment, their cooperation with the authorities, and their otherwise clean safety record.

Upon applying both steps of the Framework, the sentencing judge determined that the appropriate sentence to be imposed on the company would be a fine of $250,000, having considered the severity of harm as well as the relevant mitigating factors.

Practical Steps That Employers Can Take to Ensure the Safety, Health and Welfare of Their Employees

Workplace accidents are often unintended or unexpected. Nevertheless, there are a number of practical measures that employers can implement to minimise the risks of such accidents. These can include complying with the duties provided under the WSHA, such as:

  • Conducting risk assessments to identify hazards and implement effective risk control measures
  • Ensuring that the work environment is safe by providing all necessary protective equipment and infrastructure
  • Making sure that adequate safety measures are taken and consistently followed for any machinery, equipment, plant, article or process used at the workplace
  • Developing and implementing systems for dealing with emergencies
  • Ensuring that their workers are provided with sufficient instruction, training and supervision to ensure that they are able to work safely.

In implementing these measures, employers can conduct periodic risk assessments and consult relevant professionals to develop appropriate safeguards corresponding to the identified risks. Employers can then maintain a record of their compliance with such safety measures, including regular maintenance checks.

Employers should also implement a practice of conducting safety briefings to employees upon their employment as well as on a regular basis to remind all employees of the importance of complying with the safety measures in place.

The revised sentencing framework in PP v Manta Equipment reaffirms the importance of prioritising the welfare of all stakeholders at the workplace. It also clarifies the various considerations that will affect the sentencing of workplace safety and health offences under the WSHA. 

If you are an employer and a workplace accident has occurred on your premises, or you wish to know more about the measures you should take to avoid any violations under the WSHA, it is recommended that you consult an employment lawyer. Your lawyer will be able to provide legal advice on your case or offer guidance on the measures you may take to ensure you comply with your obligations under the WSHA. 

If you are an employee who wishes to report a WSHA infringement, you may do so at the MOM’s website.