Published: 23:28, June 24, 2024
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Safety of employees’ lives must not be taken lightly
By Ho Lok-sang

Last year, 286 workers died from occupational accidents in Hong Kong, up from 266 in 2022. In multiple articles in this column, I have proposed a no-fault penalty of HK$1 million ($128,000) per work fatality as an incentive for employers to seek every means to avoid accidents, arguing that it is impossible for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government to list everything that employers must do to ensure safety, since both the work and the circumstances on every working site are different.

With the no-fault penalty, which I believe should be awarded to the family of the deceased for immediate relief, employers would go the extra mile to avoid the risk. Without the “no fault” fine in the event of fatality, employers might be tempted to take chances. First, accidents may not happen; second, even when accidents occur, a fatality may not occur; third, even when a fatality has occurred, the fine may be quite affordable.

Unfortunately, for the workers who died and their families, the tragedies continue to take place. Last year’s 286 fatalities translate to 5.5 per week. This is appalling. However, some stakeholders would like to point to the number of industrial-accident fatalities through the year, which was 24 in 2023. But occupational-accident fatalities, which include industrial-accident fatalities, are nevertheless still fatalities involving workers and their bereaved families.

In April 2023, the Occupational Safety and Occupational Health Legislation (Miscellaneous Amendments) Ordinance 2023 was passed. The amendment provides for a maximum fine of HK$10 million and a maximum imprisonment term of two years for “extremely serious occupational safety and health contraventions” against their “general duty” requirements.

However, the court decision for one industrial accident that had caused a worker’s death levied a fine of only HK$50,000 to each of two proprietors. Upon inquiries by legislators about why the HKSAR government did not make an appeal against the sentencing decision, Chris Sun Yuk-han, secretary for labor and welfare, said that after consulting the secretary of justice, it was concluded that the court did not make any mistakes on legal principles. There was no need to appeal the case.

Such an outcome is familiar but tragic. In 2020, Aggressive Construction Engineering Ltd (ACE) and three other companies were given small fines ranging from HK$13,000 to HK$59,000 over the death of a worker who was electrocuted on a construction site in Kowloon Bay. The fines were much lower than the maximum of HK$500,000 at that time, presumably because it was deemed not to be a serious dereliction of duty.

It was especially tragic because the light penalty was followed by a series of fatal accidents. On Sept 8, 2022, a tower crane of Aggressive Construction Company Ltd (ACC) on an Anderson Road construction site collapsed, killing three and injuring six. This was followed by other accidents that led to two additional deaths and two additional injuries.

ACE and ACC were eventually taken off the list of recognized tenderers for government projects after the expiration of their registration. Their applications for renewing their recognized tenderer status are still pending.

Vincent Chow Cheung-kwong, the general manager of Great Harvest Group, the parent company of ACE and ACC, expressed optimism for improvement. “We have learned some valuable lessons from the past industrial accidents,” Chow said. He added, “Since the beginning of this year, we have appointed an independent third-party safety consultant, and our board members have conducted surprise inspections at relevant construction sites.” He added that the group has also submitted a safety improvement report as required by the Buildings Department.

A good question is: What if the penalties had been much stiffer and were required regardless of fault or no fault? From my study and knowledge of human nature, I would argue that many lives would have been saved because employers would have been much less inclined to take chances.

For ACE and ACC, not being allowed to bid for government contracts must be much worse than paying HK$1 million for each fatality caused. Delays of projects because of the failure of some contractors to renew their licenses were other costs that could have been avoided by the proposed stiffer, no-fault fines.

My proposal for a HK$1 million no-fault fine to be paid to the family of the victim would offer important and timely support. In the event that the employer is found guilty of criminal negligence, additional fines should be imposed.

Some occupational accidents can take place in domestic or other nonindustrial settings. For example, domestic helpers could die because of accidents connected with their work. My proposed HK$1 million no-fault fine for occupational accidents leading to death should not apply to them because the ability to pay of the employers of domestic helpers is usually much less than that of business concerns. Whether and to what extent the employer should be held responsible should be considered case by case. If an employer asks the domestic helper to clean windows and there is a risk of falling, he or she of course should be held responsible. If a domestic helper is killed while buying groceries because she is hit by a falling object or by a car, the employer should of course not be held responsible.

We should all consider a safe working environment as an important human right.

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.