Singapore High Court hands down first jail sentence for safety offences
A Bangladeshi national whose negligence in a construction site accident resulted in the death of two workers has become the first person to be jailed for safety offences in Singapore.
The foreman was sentenced to 25 weeks in jail on 2 November after a High Court judge said that the courts’ existing practice of handing out only fines to those who committed safety breaches should be reviewed.
The case is also the first time that the offence of performing a negligent act that endangers safety under the Workplace Safety and Health Act has been brought before the High Court, the lower division of the Supreme Court of Singapore. The move comes after the Ministry of Manpower appealed the foreman’s original sentence, which was handed out in April this year.
The prosecution had originally sought four weeks’ jail for Nurun Novi Saydur Rahman after he was found guilty by a district court. Rahman, who works for GS Engineering & Construction Corp, was found guilty and fined S$15,000 (£8,379) after two workers fell seven storeys to their deaths from an 11-storey building in the Fusionopolis research and development complex on 22 January 2014.
The Straits Times reported that Justice Chan Seng Onn had told the court that sentences imposed in the past had not had a sufficient deterrent effect to ensure compliance with workplace safety law.
Under Singapore’s Workplace Safety and Health Act, an individual who carries out a negligent act at work that endangers their own safety or others’ can be fined up to S$30,000 (£16,758) or jailed up to two years, or both.
Since the legislation was introduced in 2011, the courts have heard at least 17 cases in which negligent acts have resulted in fatalities. However, until now, no-one found guilty has faced a prison sentence.
Justice Chan Seng Onn’s ruling sets a precedent. Under Singapore’s sentencing framework, individuals who commit safety breaches involving a high degree of culpability and high potential for harm can expect a starting point of about 16 weeks’ in prison.
The judge had agreed with the Ministry of Manpower that the full sentencing range for Rahman’s offence had not been made effective use of in April. The prosecution had asked the High Court to issue sentencing guidelines for the offence, arguing that the current precedents needed to be reviewed.
Handing out the new sentence, Justice Chan Seng Onn had noted there were “several cases where the accused persons appeared to have a relatively high degree of culpability, committed breaches which created a high potential for harm, and where the breaches resulted in death, and yet all the accused persons received fines in the region of S$5,000 (£2,789) to S$12,000 (£6,694)”.
The judge added that the fact that the sentences handed out so far had been at the lower end of the sentencing range set by the Singapore Parliament also had not given effect to the legislative intent of the law, which was to improve workplace safety by deterring risk-taking behaviour.
In his framework for individual offences, Justice Chan Seng Onn crafted a grid of starting-point sentences based on three increasing levels of potential harm and three increasing levels of culpability. The final sentence would be adjusted to account for aggravating and mitigating factors of each case, including the impact of actual harm.
The judge said that if death is caused, an additional eight to 40 weeks’ jail should be added, depending on the number of fatalities. If serious injury is caused, an additional sentence of up to 10 weeks’ jail, or the equivalent in fines, may be added, depending on the severity of the injuries and the number of people hurt.
In Rahman’s case, he found his starting point sentence to be 13 weeks’ jail because his actions had high potential for harm and medium culpability. The judge added 12 weeks’ jail to account for the two deaths.
According to The Straight Times, Rahman had instructed his team to load an air compressor onto a loading platform, which was suspended at the edge of the seventh floor.
The platform was not properly secured but was suspended by a tower crane via four lifting chain slings, which was a breach of safety regulations.
In April 2018, The Straits Times reported that at Rahman’s trial, three surviving workers had testified that he had instructed them to roll the air compressor onto the platform, so it could be moved up a floor. They had warned him it was dangerous but had complied because he was their foreman.
However, when the air compressor was loaded, it rolled away from the building’s edge, causing the platform to tilt. The two workers standing on the platform could not move away in time and fell off the edge, together with the compressor. They were pronounced dead by paramedics. The compressor landed on another loading platform on the fifth floor.
At the time of the foreman’s trial in April, GS Engineering & Construction Corp had already accepted liability for the accident and pleaded guilty. The company was fined S$250,000 (£139,952) on 15 December 2016 after the ministry appealed to the High Court. It was originally handed a S$150,000 (£83,876) fine in September 2015.
In December 2016, Justice See Kee Oon set out a comprehensive framework for corporate offenders who breach their duty to ensure employees’ safety. The judge’s decision to lay out the framework had come after the ministry had appealed for a tougher fine against the company and argued that fines imposed previously had been too low.
After Justice See Kee Oon had set out the framework for corporate offenders, the prosecution urged Justice Chan Seng Onn to create a new sentencing framework for individual offenders as well.
Nick Warburton is deputy editor of IOSH Magazine