Speech – Ensuring Occupational Safety (Lo Wai Kwok)

President, with the facilitation of employers, employees and the Government over the years, the occupational safety of the construction industry in Hong Kong has seen great improvement. However, the number of serious accidents at work sites has recently increased rather than decreased. Among which, fatal accidents arising from work-at-height activities are particularly disheartening. As stated in the original motion, an increasing number of large-scale projects will commence in Hong Kong in the future. Therefore, it is imperative and timely to conduct studies with a view to ensuring occupational safety and enhancing industrial safety level.

We should adopt a multi-pronged approach to strengthen the occupational safety of construction workers. Firstly, the Government should collaborate with the industry to strive for enhancing the construction design management safety level, so as to give sufficient regard for safety of construction and subsequent maintenance during the design stage, and formulate corresponding proposals on eliminating hazards and risks.

Secondly, different stakeholders of a construction project should work in concert to set a reasonable duration of construction to reduce industrial accidents caused by working against the clock. Despite the shortage of construction workers, quite a number of people in the construction industry have recently relayed to me that some important clients of the industry ― including private developers, public organizations and government departments ― propose an overly tight deadline for completion of works to contractors, or even request for squeezing the construction period. In so doing, contractors, subcontractors and construction workers are inevitably under pressure to work against the clock, thus affecting industrial safety.

Thirdly, the Government should put more effort to support the industry in providing better on-the-job trainings for employees. Be it contractors, subcontractors or employers, they should all support their employees to take relevant courses run by such organizations as the Construction Industry Council (CIC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Council, so that employees can move with the times and keep abreast of knowledge on occupational safety.

Fourthly, the occupational safety awareness of those working in the industry should be comprehensively enhanced. As far as contractors are concerned, the CIC is promoting the adoption of the Pay for Safety Scheme in construction contracts. Under the proposal, contractors have to clearly list out items of expenses spent on work-site safety in their tender documents. These expenses can be refunded if safety performance is satisfactory. Otherwise, an appropriate amount is deducted from the refund or even no refund will be made at all. This will encourage contractors to put emphasis on ensuring occupational safety. As for those working in the industry, there are quite a number of events, such as talks and seminars, in place to help promote their awareness of occupational safety.

Fifthly, employers who violate the law should, of course, be punished according to law. The training on and management of occupational safety for employees should also be strengthened at the same time. Employees who do not comply with industrial safety guidelines, or even work under the influence of alcohol and drugs, should be educated and advised against such actions. Penalty should be applied to serious offenders.

Sixthly, a five-day work week for work sites should be actively promoted, rendering it unnecessary to work on Saturday. If it is necessary to work on Saturday, a shift system should be implemented, so as to ensure that employees will be in good shape and can stay alert at work, as well as maintain work-life balance and enjoy family life. A colleague proposed in his amendment enacting legislation on setting standard working hours. As this issue is still very controversial in the community, it is really not appropriate to be implemented in a hasty manner.

Seventhly, the Government can consider setting set up a “central employees’ compensation fund” or compensation funds for employees by industry, so as to provide comprehensive compensation protection to employees for all injuries and deaths or occupational diseases arising from work.

President, if we are to tackle the problem not only expediently but permanently, and strengthen the occupational safety of construction workers, the authorities must face up to and expeditiously resolve the shortage of construction workers and the imbalance of its supply and demand. As shown by the findings of a manpower survey conducted in the form of questionnaire by several organizations such as the Hong Kong Construction Association and the Hong Kong Federation of Electrical and Mechanical Contractors in November 2012,construction sites with works in progress had over 15% of labour shortage in all kinds of skilled workers on average. This brought serious challenges to work progress and work site safety. Members of the industry have repeatedly relayed to me the seriousness of this problem.

In the past, when project schedules were not that tight, employers could allocate manpower to guide newcomers and give sufficient time for them to practice on the job. As practice makes perfect, mistakes could subsequently be reduced and occupational safety be enhanced. Nowadays, the construction industry is facing the difficulties of succession gap and manpower strain. It is difficult to allocate manpower to guide newcomers, and workers very often are forced to work overtime day and night, racing against the clock to complete their works. Working overtime continuously in such an exhausted state, occupational safety would inevitably be greatly compromised.

In fact, at the Legislative Council meeting on 9 January, I raised an oral question to the relevant authorities regarding labour shortage of the construction industry. I hereby urge once again that the SAR Government, together with members of the industry, to make a good estimate on the supply and demand of the construction manpower, to review and optimize the existing arrangements such as the Enhanced Construction Manpower Training Scheme and the Contractor Cooperative Training Scheme, and to put in more training resources to attract more newcomers to join the industry while striving to raise the skill level and industrial safety standard of newcomers, with a view to strengthening occupational safety protection.

President, I so submit.