DOSH must take rap for worksite deaths and injuries

The Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) is shocked by the Department of Occupational Safety and Health’s (DOSH) disclosure that 711 workers were killed on the job in 2017, with 183 of the fatalities occurring at construction sites.

In the latest worksite incident, an Indonesian couple was killed and three others were injured when a multi-storey car park under construction at the Gombak LRT station at Taman Melati collapsed on May 23.

This is an indication of the pathetic state of enforcement by DOSH and raises the question of whether the department is relevant any longer.

A number of construction projects are going on in the country and are a major contributor to the economy, yet the safety of the workers – mainly the manual workers – is not given the importance it deserves. It is as if their lives are cheap.

CAP has carried out surveys at construction sites and found that ,many workers do not wear safety apparel such as helmets, harnesses or fall protection equipment (when working above 2m), jackets, protective gloves and hearing plugs.

Who should be blamed for this non-compliance of safety requirements at the worksite: the employees, the employer or the enforcement body?

DOSH appears to believe that putting up “Safety First” notices at worksites absolves it and the developers from liability for accidents resulting in injuries and death.

The Occupational and Safety Act makes employers responsible for making worksites safe and it makes DOSH responsible for enforcing the Act. The death of 711 workers in 2017 is shocking and disgraceful to say the least. It means that those in the construction industry do not respect the law because they do not fear the law, and that is because of non-professional enforcement of the law.

DOSH says that projects costing over RM20 million are “self-regulated”. This means the project developers are required to hire their own safety experts on their sites and DOSH does not inspect these sites. It only inspects worksites of projects costing less than RM20 million.

DOSH is wrong to think that “self-regulated” projects do not need to be audited by it. Is safety being compromised as it might cost more to put in all the safety measures required under the law than to pay compensation for the life and limb of manual workers? Why does DOSH think that there is no need to check on the safety consultants’ work at these big projects?

In two major landslide cases in Tanjung Bungah and Bukit Kukus, Penang, DOSH highlighted that the contractors did not comply with safety standards as required by the law and that negligence subsequently killed more than 20 workers in both cases.

Taking action only after major accidents have happened and people have been killed is not a consolation to the families of the victims. The recalcitrant consultants should be deregistered to send a strong message that any incompetency and negligence will not be tolerated.

DOSH’s claim that it practises professionalism in carrying out its duties appears hollow. It states that it carries out surprise checks at worksites and at the same time laments that its officers cannot be at the worksites all the time. This speaks volumes of its “professionalism”. If it is professional, it should put enough fear into the building construction industry such that no one would dare breach any safety regulation. Until and unless DOSH starts enforcing the law strictly, it cannot claim to be exercising professionalism in its regulatory work.

Recommendations for worksite safety

CAP recommends the following for improvement of worksite safety:

  1. For each worksite, there must be one dedicated consultant who is in overall charge of safety. This person is responsible for the prevention of accidents on the site.
  2. DOSH must carry out spot checks at all worksites, including the so-called “self-regulated” ones.
  3. DOSH should impose the maximum penalty for the first offence to drive home the point that workers’ safety is a serious matter.
  4. Section XI of the Occupational Safety and Health Act gives wide powers of investigation and action against those who breach the law. The law needs to be enforced strictly. It does not give discretionary powers to let anyone off lightly.
  5. Current penalties of a RM50,000 fine and imprisonment of not more than two years are grossly inadequate and not deterrent at all. Light penalties only encourage the breach of laws as it is cheaper to do so than to comply. The penalty should be raised to not less than 10% of the project cost or not less than two years’ imprisonment, or the irresponsible employer should be penalised under the Penal Code for manslaughter in the event of fatalities.
  6. DOSH must conduct a follow-up check at the worksite after the contractor or developer is issued with a stop-work order. In the case of the landslide at Bukit Kukus, it was revealed that a stop-work order was issued but the developer did not comply with it. DOSH should examine any violation of the stop-work order and take immediate action against the developer.
  7. The guilty party should be charged in court and a suitable sentence meted out so as to set an example for the rest in the industry.

We urge DOSH to take a tough stand against errant contractors and developers. It has to take urgent measures to rectify this festering problem that affects those who help to build the nation.

Mohideen Abdul Kader is vice-president of the Consumers’ Association of Penang.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.