The Ministry of Manpower has released statistics of the number of work injury claims made under the Work Injury Compensation Act (“WICA”), which allows an employee to claim compensation from his employer if he suffers an injury by accident due to work. In 2019 alone, there were 15,992 claims, an increase from 14,585 claims in 2018. A total of 120.02 million was paid either as medical leave wages or as lump sum payments for permanent incapacity or death.
These statistics do not account for the claims which workers have pursued through the Courts.
Recently, the District Court in Gursahib Singh v Aquatemp Pte Ltd, Koh Brothers Building & Civil Engineering Contractor (Pte) Ltd t/a Samsung-Koh Brothers Joint Venture and others  SGDC 127 held a worker to be contributorily negligent and contributed to his own injuries.
Our John Lim and Alvin Sia acted for the employer at the trial.
This update takes a look at the District Court’s decision.
The key facts relevant to the issues discussed in this update are summarised below.
The worker was employed to work at the Changi East Project, which includes Changi Airport’s fifth termination, Terminal 5, a three-runway system and the construction of tunnels and other underground systems.
On 14 March 2017, the employer instructed the worker to install zinc roofing sheets on the scaffold frame sheltering an office container. The worker alleged he sustained personal injuries after falling from a ladder. According to the worker’s account of events, he was working alone.
The worker claimed damages, alleging that the employer breached its statutory duties under WICA and under the common law duty of care.
The employer’s defence was that it had taken all reasonable precautions to implement a buddy system by assigning a co-worker. The employer’s primary case was that there was no requirement to use a ladder because each zinc roofing sheet was approximately 5 metres in length while the height of the office container was only 2.57 metres. This meant there was no need for the worker to climb the ladder when zinc roofing sheets could be passed on to the co-worker who was standing atop the office container.
The District Court’s Decision
The District Court judge found the worker to be contributorily negligent and refused to find that the employer was solely responsible. The District Court judge observed that while the Court could not admit the evidence of the co-worker due to his absence at trial because he had ended his employment since the accident, the following findings were crucial in its decision:
- Worker’s method of installing zinc roofing sheets was questionable
- The worker testified that he had balanced the zinc roofing sheets, each weighing 30 kg and measuring 5 metres in length, above his head and ascended the ladder to place the zinc roofing sheets on the scaffold frame. During cross-examination, the worker admitted it would have been “more systematic” when it was suggested to him that an alternative method would be to first ascend the ladder to reach the roof of the office container before lifting up the zinc roofing sheets from the ground.
- Worker’s testimony that the ladder was not secured was “baffling”
- The worker testified that the ladder was not secured by hooks to ceiling pipes, causing him to fall while he ascended the ladder. However, he had also agreed with the employer’s lead counsel that the ceiling pipes were not even in place at the time of the accident.
- Worker was an experienced construction worker at the time of the accident
- The worker denied having heard of the term “3-point contact”, which was a safety approach to use ladders safely by always maintaining three points of contract, during cross-examination. The District Court judge did not accept this, noting that the worker had undergone the mandatory Construction Safety Orientation Course (CSOC), which included a segment on working at height with a ladder. Furthermore, the worker had been employed as a construction worker in industry since 2009, and had attended the toolbox meeting on the morning of the accident.
In apportioning liability, the District Court judge relied upon the Court of Appeal’s decision in Parno v SC Marine Pte Ltd  3 SLR(R) 579 (“Parno”), as a reference by which liability should be apportioned in the present case.
In Parno, a rigger was assigned to watch over a piling tower deck onboard a barge. While doing so, the rigger noticed a loose pin on the hammer, and attempted to arbitrarily rectify this by replacing the pin with a small wire usually used for welding. The rectification method was wrong and resulted in the rigger suffering injuries as a result. The Court of Appeal noted that the rigger was inexperienced, and further considered that the incident happened at 5 pm, many hours after the rigger started working since 6 am, and the rigger would therefore have been fatigued. The Court of Appeal apportioned the percentage of liability to the rigger at approximately 33% with the remaining liability to be borne by his employer.
In the present case, the District Court judge differentiated the facts from Parno in two ways. Firstly, the accident occurred in the morning and the worker could not have been fatigued. Secondly, the worker was far more experienced with eight years of experience in the construction industry. Ultimately, the Court apportioned a greater responsibility to the worker then to the rigger in Parno.
As the law in Singapore currently stands, it would appear that the Courts have now adopted a more conservative approach to limit the liability of employers, especially where the worker in question is experienced and expected to take ownership of his own safety because workers would have undergone the mandatory Construction Safety Orientation Course. This is a welcome clarification of the position regarding liability for negligently caused damages for personal injuries, the ambit of which was potentially very far-reaching in view of the increasing emphasis on workplace safety and health practices by employers and the ever-increasing number of claims made by workers.
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