Nancy Li’s world turned upside down when her husband died in 2019, just three days into his new job at a reclamation site for Hong Kong’s third airport runway project. Sam Chung, 38, lost control of the bulldozer he was operating and it toppled into the sea, taking him with it. He was rescued, but was pronounced dead in hospital. He was the family’s breadwinner. His widow found herself having to care for three young children and support his elderly parents too. “I fell into a slump following his accident. I couldn’t pay attention to my surroundings at all. It felt like being in a daze and I didn’t know what to do,” recalled his widow Li, now 41. There was some relief, as the family was entitled to compensation of 84 months of Chung’s monthly salary, about HK$2.6 million (US$334,615). Li received her widow’s compensation of around HK$1 million as a lump sum in March. The Labour Department pays about HK$10,000 into her bank account every month as the children’s share. She said she could not bear to watch news of worksite accidents for fear of reliving the pain of her husband’s death. “Safety measures for workers have to be improved,” she said. “With each accident, there is one more family torn apart. It’s not about one dead person, but many people who are affected.” Hong Kong is in the midst of a major review of its occupational safety laws, with the Legislative Council scrutinising a bill to increase penalties against contractors and employers for safety lapses that result in injury or death. Unionists want the proposed changes to become law as quickly as possible, in the hope that safety measures will be stepped up and errant bosses dealt with. But employers and contractors have pushed back, saying the proposed penalties are too severe. The Hong Kong statistics for workplace accidents are grim, particularly in construction. Overall, the sector’s accident rate improved slightly, from 31.7 per 1,000 workers in 2018 to 29.5 last year, but the number of deaths remains a serious concern. Chung’s death was one of 22 fatal industrial accidents recorded in 2019, with 16 occurring in construction. The sector’s 2,974 accidents that year accounted for almost a third of all industrial accidents, which refer to those occurring at factories, construction sites, dockyards and warehouses, for example. Why an industrial accident could mean a life of pain and poverty There were 2,532 accidents and 18 deaths at construction sites in 2020. Last year, the numbers rose, with 3,109 accidents and 23 deaths. The first half of this year saw 3,354 industrial accidents, of which 1,399 were in construction. Nine of the 12 deaths occurred at construction sites. “It is a cliche you hear whenever a fatal accident occurs – ‘every accident is one too many’,” said Ng Wai-leung, rights and complaints officer at the Hong Kong Construction Industry Employees General Union. “‘Safety First’ seems to have become a cheap slogan.” He said the high number of worksite accidents was partly due to contractors’ lax monitoring and management of occupational safety. He pointed to a worksite accident at Sau Mau Ping in September, when a 65-tonne tower crane collapsed, leaving three men dead and six others injured. Officials said there were “obvious faults” at the base of the structure. Separate investigations by the police and Labour Department are under way. Hong Kong has already seen several fatal industrial accidents since the tower crane collapse. In October, a worker was killed after being hit by a cement mixer truck in a Yau Tong site. Days later, another worker died after a stack of bricks collectively weighing about a tonne fell onto him at a public cargo handling area in Tai Kok Tsui. On Tuesday, a construction worker was killed after being hit by falling steel bars at a Tsim Sha Tsui building site. On the same day, there was another industrial accident in a construction machinery shop in Tai Po where a worker died after being struck by a part from the road roller as he was repairing underneath it. In Hong Kong, the two main laws related to workplace safety are the Occupational Safety and Health Ordinance (OSHO), and the Factories and Industrial Undertakings Ordinance (FIUO). They cover most employees other than domestic workers and the self-employed. No New Year joy for Hongkonger widowed by worksite accident, part of worrying trend The FIUO, enacted in 1955 for industrial settings like factories and construction sites, was last amended in 1994, when the penalties were raised. The OSHO was enacted in 1997 and the penalties have remained unchanged since. Aside from industrial worksites it also covers workplaces such as shops and offices. The proposals before Legco aim to strengthen deterrence by increasing the penalties for workplace safety lapses. Under the proposed Occupational Safety and Occupational Health Legislation (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill 2022, employers who violate occupational safety legislation face a maximum fine of HK$10 million and 24 months’ jail, with their companies’ turnover to be taken into account during sentencing. The maximum penalties are currently a fine of up to HK$500,000 and 12 months’ jail. How embroidery changed this paraplegic’s life for the better The bill also proposes increasing the maximum fines for employers and employees who fail to observe the “general duties of care” expected of them. For example, employers are expected to keep the workplace safe and provide proper safety training, while employees should dress appropriately and avoid reckless acts that affect the safety of fellow workers. Those who fail to fulfil these expectations may be prosecuted summarily, and the bill proposes raising the maximum fines to HK$3 million for employers and HK$150,000 for employees. The time limit for investigations leading to prosecution will be extended from six months to one year if the bill is passed, to give officers more time to investigate and gather evidence. The changes are being studied by a Legco bills committee. 2 Hong Kong construction workers die after being pulled from manhole Broadly speaking, the law distinguishes between summary offences which are less serious and indictable offences which are more serious. Data presented to the committee showed that in 2020, the average fine for a summons involving an OSH offence was about HK$7,800, and the average fine for summonses related to fatal cases was about HK$30,500. In 27 cases of workers’ deaths with trials completed in 2020, the average fine for each summons was about HK$24,000, and the average fine imposed on each convicted defendant was about HK$62,000. In the case of Nancy Li’s husband, the four contractors involved were fined between HK$45,000 and HK$65,000 each in 2020. Arguing for harsher punishments to get the safety message across, unionist Ng said: “You have to raise the penalties so that employers feel the pain, or they will not take it seriously. They will simply take into account the fine as part of their costs.” The construction sector, however, is alarmed by the proposed changes. Hong Kong Construction Association executive director Godfrey Leung King-kwok said contractors were targeted unfairly in recent discussions on worksite safety following the crane incident. “Activists took advantage of the tower crane accident to demonise contractors,” he said. “We are committed to improving safety at sites and we agree the laws need to be updated. But the present approach of raising penalties against the employers is not addressing the issue of safety performance.” Pointing out that contractors were punished with stop-work notices whenever a serious accident occurred at a worksite, he said: “Their work will be put on hold for weeks, or even months. The contractor may also be barred from bidding for government projects. That already serves as a good deterrent because it will cost the contractor a lot of money.” In the case of the tower crane accident, he said, the main contractor, Aggressive Construction Company, had been banned from tendering for public works contracts until the end of next year. “That is already a very big punishment for the contractor,” he said. Unhappy that the bill seemed to target employers and proprietors, he suggested offering more resources to improve the safety awareness of workers. “No one wants to see accidents. But employers should not be held responsible for all accidents,” he said. “Accidents can also be caused by workers’ carelessness or other uncontrollable reasons. “The bill should treat all stakeholders fairly. Employers, workers, subcontractors and others should bear their due responsibility for safety.” Leung was also against doubling the investigation period to a year, saying this only prolonged the pain of victims’ families and employers. “The Labour Department should instead increase its manpower to speed up the investigations and prosecutions,” he said. Hong Kong contractor barred from bids as police investigate fatal collapse Peter Poon Wai-kit, occupational safety and health executive director of the Hong Kong Construction Industry Employees General Union, said it was irresponsible to blame workers for accidents. “The FIUO states plainly that the proprietor has the duty to ensure the health and safety at work of everyone he employs, and the duty extends to providing safe equipment, training, a safe work environment and even safe access to and from the site,” he said. He said safety was sometimes compromised when a project was late and workers were told to catch up. “Many workers are afraid to voice concerns for fear they could lose their jobs,” he said. Beyond the construction sector, some employers are worried about the impact of the bill, fearing they might end up “collateral victims”. HK$300 million scheme to help injured Hong Kong construction staff launched Environmental Services Contractors Alliance convenor Catherine Yan Sui-han criticised “officials sitting in their ivory tower” for focusing on the construction sector when many other businesses would be hit by the tough proposals. “Labour-intensive trades, like cleaning, logistics or security, could be heavily affected,” she said. “The amendments cover all workplaces and many companies in Hong Kong are small and medium sized enterprises. Fining them HK$10 million is asking them to go bankrupt. What good is that for employees or work safety?” She also thought the proposal for courts to take a company’s turnover into account during sentencing was unfair. “Turnover is not profit. For labour-intensive sectors, some 90 per cent of costs go to staff pay and benefits, and the profit margin could be as low as one per cent or two per cent,” she said. More than 250 firefighters tackle blaze at Hong Kong construction site Lawmaker Peter Shiu Ka-fai, of the pro-business Liberal Party, and a member of the bills committee, hoped the government would allow more time to hear the views of the business sector. “Having harsh penalties against employers alone cannot stop accidents,” he said. He also said not all contractors were wealthy or ran big businesses. “There are many small-sized contractors, like those doing home renovation or maintenance work. A HK$10 million fine is an astronomical sum for most contractors,” he said. Lawmaker Chan Siu-hung, who is also on the bills committee, said he wanted the bill amended to lower the maximum penalty from HK$10 million to HK$6 million, and to halve the fine for summary prosecution to HK$1.5 million. He also thought the investigation period could be extended to nine months, instead of the proposed 12 months. 1 worker dead, 2 injured in fire at Hong Kong cold storage centre At one of the committee meetings, officials told legislators that the “prosecution threshold” for indictable offences was very high, and cases moved forward only when there were serious offences involving wilful or reckless acts or omissions, resulting in death or serious injury. Siu Sin-man, chief executive of the Association for the Rights of Industrial Accident Victims, said the construction sector had exaggerated their fears about the impact of the proposed changes. “The employers like to say the HK$10 million fine is too harsh, as if they will be fined that amount for every single accident. But that is the maximum fine, for very serious cases only,” she said.