The Singapore Court of Appeal has ordered a stevedoring company to pay SGD$250,000 to a former employee as damages for breach of the company’s duty to take reasonable care for his safety.
The employee was a Malaysian national with a work permit to work in Singapore. While performing his stevedoring duties, a ladder that he was on detached from the hull of the vessel, causing the employee to fall some 10 metres and sustain severe injuries.
The employee commenced common law proceedings against the employer as an alternative to pursuing a claim for workers’ compensation under the no fault statutory scheme. The employee lost the case at first instance, and appealed to the Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal referred to the common law duty imposed upon all employers to take reasonable care for the safety of their employees, and confirmed that this duty exists even if employees are delegated or deployed to work in premises not belonging to the employer.
In light of this common law duty, the court commented that if an employee’s work is of a nature that might give rise to safety concerns, employers are generally expected to perform a risk assessment exercise including, where possible, a physical inspection of the workplace prior to the commencement of work.
In this case, the court held that it had been clear from the outset that the employees would have to climb various ladders in order to perform their duties. The employer should have performed a risk assessment of the work premises before the work commenced, and provided the employees with additional safety equipment to minimise the risk of falling. The court found that it was clear in this case that the employer had done little to address the safety of the employees and ‘must now accept the consequences of its entirely nonchalant approach towards worker safety that has resulted in this unhappy and plainly avoidable accident’.
The court concluded that the employer was fully liable for the injuries that the employee suffered, and ultimately the employee was awarded SGD$250,000 in damages.
Implications for employers
This case reminds employers of their general duty to take reasonable care for the safety of their employees, and illustrates the potential serious consequences of a failure to abide by that duty, both to the employee injured as a result and also to the employer’s bottom line.
Notably, the obligations of employers with regard to safety have been further strengthened in Singapore since the employee in this case suffered the injury (in 2005) by the implementation of the Workplace Safety and Health Act on 1 January 2006. For more information about that legislation, and expansion of its coverage in 2008, refer to our September 2008 edition of the Asia-Pacific Employee Relations Review.3
In further developments, the Singapore government recently announced that from 1 September 2011, the Workplace Safety and Health Act will be extended to cover all workplaces in Singapore. Moreover, the Act will be amended later this year to strengthen the duties of care imposed on principals who outsource services to contractors. The amendments will make clear that whilst work can be outsourced, the duty to ensure the work is performed safely cannot.