Companies ignore workplace risk at their peril

Just preventing accidents no longer enough in knowledge-based economy, say safety experts

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 September, 2012, 3:52am

About 4 per cent of the world's GDP is lost each year due to occupational diseases or work-related injuries, and employers need to learn how to better manage the workplace risks. That is the central message at a regional annual conference in Singapore starting tomorrow.

Some 800 professionals, business leaders and officials on workplace safety are gathering in the Lion City this week to discuss challenges in today's fast-changing environment and how to promote a better work safety culture in Asia.

The region's thinking about workplace safety has for long related to preventing workers falling to their death or losing fingers. But as the region moves from manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy, workplace safety should now include more than just managing high-risk environments and reducing accidents, experts say. Employers need to learn how to keep their employees healthy or face paying the hidden costs.

In Singapore, more than 600,000 man-hours were lost due to work accidents in 2011. The city set up a Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) Council in 2006 to help promote better work arrangements through social media and mobile applications.

In Hong Kong, the WSH Council was formed more than 20 years ago and has a long tradition of promoting better workplace safety practices.

Dr Jukka Takala, executive director of Singapore's Workplace Safety and Health Institute, said Hong Kong and Singapore could become role models for other economies in the region to emulate.

"The experience of both Hong Kong and Singapore show us that for efficient achievement of Workplace Safety and Health targets, we cannot just rely on traditional regulatory and enforcement measures," Takala said.

"A wide range of promotional tools, engagement of stakeholders, safety-culture building and modern communication is also vital."

He said employers should not see this as an additional cost, as better work safety and health practices will generate greater returns for the organisations, with fewer absentees, lower staff turnover rate and a more productive workforce emerging as the result.

But Takala said it was still difficult to convince Asian management to invest in such programmes. Most companies in the region care only about short-term profits and tend to under-spend on staff caring.

Takala said the costs may become visible only in the later stage of the worker's career, when prevention is too late. He said Asia should learn from Western countries' experience and avoid making similar mistakes.

In Australia, the cost of injury and illness is estimated to be 5.9 per cent of the country's GDP. In the UK, more than 8,000 deaths a year are now found to be caused by occupational cancer.