Published: 00:30, December 30, 2021 | Updated: 16:35, December 30, 2021
Safety of workers’ lives must now be a priority

Following the tragic deaths of multiple workers killed by toxic gases from sewage wells/manholes over the past two months, it is imperative that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government and our recently elected legislators take protecting the lives of workers as a priority.

Although on the surface, the number of industrial accidents for all sectors in 2020, at 7,202, was noticeably lower in 2020 than in 2019, and the number of occupational accidents, at 27,127, was similarly lower, fatalities have been on a rising trend. Fatal occupational accident cases rose from 203 in 2016 to 234 in 2020. Fatal industrial accident cases rose from 18 in 2016 to 21 in 2020. The tally of 234 in a year translates to 19.5 per month, or more than four per week. This is shocking. The tally of 234 is the figure of “fatal cases” under occupational injuries reported to the Legislative Council Panel on Manpower under the heading “Hong Kong’s Occupational Safety Performance in 2020”. Occupational injuries include industrial injuries, which are confined to those that occur on industrial sites and arising from industrial activities. 

According to the Factories and Industrial Undertakings Ordinance, the highest fine for employers breaching the Ordinance stands at HK$500,000 ($64,130). In 2006, at one incident one worker died and two workers were injured at a manhole. The employer was fined HK$50,000. Siu Sin-man, the chief executive of the Association for the Rights of Industrial Accident Victims, laments that the fines are far too little and do not provide any incentive for employers to be serious about industrial safety. She also found it incredible that the two deceased workers were allowed to work while wearing only surgical masks in highly dangerous settings. The contractor claimed that safety tests had been conducted before the works commenced and that the surge of toxic gases from the manhole was unpredictable.

Of course, no one can precisely predict the intensity and the timing of toxic gas discharges. But there is no need to be able to precisely predict these things. It is well known that manholes, especially those at or near sewage sites, will emit toxic gases, in particular methane, which can cause an explosion or alternatively kill silently. It is also known that surgical masks are not able to protect against such gases. What is the contractor talking about? 

We need to remember that a dead worker means a broken family. To me, preventing these tragedies is far more important than “oiling” the economy, offering attractive lotteries to would-be homebuyers, or extending the benefits of the Public Transport Fare Concession Scheme to those between 60 and 65 years old.

The government has noted that “persons falling from height” is the most common type of fatal industrial accident. In 2020, the Labor Department launched eight special enforcement operations. Such operations, in particular surprise inspections, are necessary. But adequate fines are also absolutely necessary. When the fines are big enough, employers cannot afford to be lax. Workers sometimes tend to be overconfident. They may prefer convenience over protection because they think they are skillful enough to ward off dangers. Employers also prefer to turn a blind eye to breaches initiated by their own workers, when the fines are affordable and there is a deadline to meet. It is unbelievable that fines instituted decades ago remain unchanged today. These fines must be significantly raised in order to have credibility and effect. I would recommend increasing the HK$500,000 fine by a factor of 10 to HK$5 million.

In his address to the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, President Xi Jinping stated: We will promote safe development, and raise public awareness that life matters most and that safety comes first; we will improve the public safety system and the responsibility system for workplace safety; we will take resolute measures to prevent major accidents, and build up our capacity for disaster prevention, mitigation, and relief. But a post in the China Labour Bulletin complains that while improvement in terms of reducing major industrial incidents was marked, less attention was put on injuries and fatalities involving a small number of victims, and they do add up.

The post notes that worker safety can be assured only when all the stakeholders do their part. This means government officials, proprietors and workers must all do their part. To this list, I should add lawmakers and the public. We all have a stake in Hong Kong’s industrial safety.

Only with the support of our lawmakers and the public can we significantly increase the fines on the proprietors and the compensation given to workers. If fines are stiff and compensation is much bigger and much better assured — in particular when compensation will be paid even if the worker is at fault — employers will have a completely different mindset to industrial safety management. They will be furious with those who recklessly take risks, whereas now they will be “thankful” for their sacrifice. They will also not push workers to overwork. It must be remembered that when workers overstretch themselves, they not only hurt their health but are also much more liable to making mistakes that could lead to disasters.

The author is director of the Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.