05 Oct 2022
Keynote Address by Mr Silas Sng,
Commissioner for Workplace Safety and Health at
the Opening Ceremony of the Singapore Petrochemical Complex’s Health, Safety & Environment (HSE) Campaign 2022 on Wednesday, 5 October 2022, 11:20am
Managing Directors and Chief Executive Officers of Complex Companies
Distinguished viewers, ladies and gentlemen
1. Good morning, everyone. Thank you for inviting me to be part of the opening ceremony for the Health, Safety & Environment Campaign 2022. The Singapore Petrochemical Complex has been a strong advocate for Workplace Safety and Health (WSH), holding a HSE campaign on an annual basis. I understand that it has been two years since the last in-person campaign, and I am glad to be able to join you physically today.
2. The organiser have chosen “Mental Wellness – your story matters, speaking up helps” for the Complex’s HSE campaign slogan this year.
3. So I would like to begin with a personal story that’s almost 2 decades old. It was 2003 the year of SARS. I was then responsible for putting in place all the prevention measures for the Ministry at Havelock Road (a bit like the SMO for MOM-HQ). Back then we had thousands of customers turning up at the HQ for various transactions including foreigners who arrived from countries where SARS were detected (there were no border closure then).
4. It was stressful and tiring period as I recalled often being the first car in and last car out. Back then thermal scanner was not commercially available, and my team and I had to take the temperature of our customers individually.
5. One of my most poignant memories was about being tasked to draft a warning / alert message to be displayed at the various service counters to customers who visited us.
6. It was a relatively straightforward task, so I drafted the message and fired of the email. Almost immediately after sending I spotted a substantive error. I quickly corrected it, resent, and apologised. Within minutes, one of the recipients called me to enquire if there was another error. Unfortunately there was and the third round of email, apologies went out. You can imagine the frustrations of my colleagues and that of my own. Then another call came in informing me of yet another error!
7. It was then that I realised that something was wrong with me. I was somehow not able to think straight. I was reading but the brain was not processing the information properly. Even some of my concerned colleagues called me to ask if I was alright as it was not typical of me to make multiple mistakes like this repeatedly. So, I told my boss that I needed a break to rest.
8. On hindsight it was most likely due to a combination of stress and fatigue, but I remained thankful for that episode because it reminded me that I am not invincible but fallible.
9. Fast forward to 2020, when the pandemic struck, many of my colleagues experiencing an even harsher cycle of stress and fatigue with no end in sight then. My experience two decades ago allowed me to empathise with my colleagues and together we rally each other on to pull through the crisis of our generation. I am sure you too have your fair share of “war-stories” in the past two and a half years of the pandemic. Such crisis or stories build bonds and strengthen personal as well as organisation resilience.
10. I would like to take this opportunity to now share some perspective with respect to personal and corporate ownership of Mental Well-being.
Personal Ownership of MWB
11. First, I believed at its core, everyone has to take individual ownership of his or her MWB. From a WSH angle, an employer can “force” employee to follow a certain SOP or wear a requisite PPE. But you cannot force an individual not be stressed or maintain a certain level of MWB. MWB is a multi-faceted manifestation. What happened at home can affect your performance at work and vice versa what happened at work can affect your mood back at home. If you have a big argument with your spouse and you can still come to work feeling zen and performed at 100%, pls share your secret with all of us.
12. On a more serious note, let me share a more tragic story. In the process industry, purging is a high-risk albeit fairly common activity which is why governed by various PTW or SOP. In 2020, two technicians were tasked to purge a unit for subsequent maintenance and so they connected the nitrogen hose to the unit’s outlet line. Unfortunately, the moment the purging commenced, the nitrogen hose burst due to the ingress of high pressure ethylene gas from the outlet line. This resulted in pressurised ethylene gas being discharged and subsequently ignited into a flash fire. Sadly, both technicians died from the extensive burns.
13. Our investigation revealed that a critical step of opening the valve to depressurise ethylene gas in the outlet line prior to the nitrogen purging activity was missed. This could have been easily accomplished in the central control room by a boardman. Unfortunately on that fateful day, the communication broke down and the boardman was not aware of the purging activity.
14. On hindsight, it is easy to attribute the primary cause of the accident to failure to abide by the SOP. However, I wonder about the deceased state of mind prior to the accident. Were they distracted by something weighing on their minds such that they forgot that critical live saving step? Unfortunately, we will never know. This case highlights the need for workers engaged in safety critical jobs to not only be competent in what they do but also the need to be mentally alert.
15. At the end of the day, your colleague is unable carry the burden that is in your mind for you although they can be your listening ears and a shoulder to cry on. Therefore as your campaign slogan suggest, your story matters, speaking up helps. If you are in a privilege position to be the one offering the listening ear, do so intently.
Corporate ownership of MWB
16. Second, organisations and employers do have a role to play looking after the MWB of your staff. This includes engendering a psychologically safe work environment. In advocating for your workers to speak up, it is a sign that the industry is committed to creating a safe space for employees to share their challenges and will be supported.
17. To find out how well your employees are doing, you can leverage on your company’s employee’s engagement survey to get a sense. Alternatively you may also use the WSH Institute’s iWorkHealth tool, which is a validated and self-administered online survey to identify your employees’ common stressors. I understand from my colleagues that only one of the companies within the complex had participated in the iWH tool. May I encourage the rest to try it out, you can even use it for a specific department or branch and not necessary the entire company. I give you my assurance that data collected will be hosted securely and access to the data are tightly controlled.
18. Beyond knowing the state of MWB of your staff, many of you have already put into place initiatives for your employees’ mental well-being. Resources such as the Tripartite Advisory on Mental Well-being at Workplaces and the Playbook on Workplace Mental Well-being provide practical guidance on how to implement workplace mental well-being initiatives, such as setting up a peer support system, Employee Assistance Programme or establishing a policy on after-hours communications.
19. While MWB initiatives are good and necessary especially in today’s context, but genuine corporate ownership of MWB must be rooted in a culture of care and trust. It is a fallacy to assume that a company that preaches and practices MWB are devoid of crisis and fire-fighting. But how the leadership team and colleagues respond and support each other especially in times of crisis will serve as the litmus test to the espoused organisation’s culture. That is how a great organisation will differentiate itself from other organisation.
20. Recently Dr William Wan, the General Secretary from the Singapore Kindness Movement shared a book he wrote entitled “Making Kindness Our Business” with me. In that book, he advocates that spreading kindness at the workplace is good for business. Many of the messages he shared in the book resonated with me as it is very much aligned with the WSH culture of care, trust and prevention and I leave you to source for the book from SKM to tap on Dr Wan’s wisdom.
21. But let me conclude with a message from Minister Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth who provided an opening to the book. He said “This means creating a culture of kindness with supporting policies that protect workers and reinforcing networks of care and support within our organisations, in order to respond to the stresses and precarity arising from complex challenges like the pandemic. Many businesses are already finding out, at a large cost to themselves, that kindness is not a luxury, but a necessity. In turn those who have found strength in kindness have grown stronger.”
22. With that thank you and I wish you a fruitful campaign.