Speech by
Mr Matthew CHEUNG Kin-chung, JP
Permanent Secretary for Economic Development and Labour
at the Hong Kong Construction Association
Annual Safety Conference
on 30 August 2005 (Tuesday)

Mr Conrad WONG, Mr David STUFF, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Introduction

I consider it an honour to be invited to open this Annual Safety Conference of the Hong Kong Construction Association (HKCA) and to address the occasion.

2. Let me first commend HKCA warmly for its firm commitment to promoting construction safety in Hong Kong and its effort in putting together such a solid programme for the conference today. The HKCA's Health and Safety Committee (under Mr David Stuff) has been playing an important role in this respect. I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Committee on producing its first ever HKCA Annual Safety Report 2004. I was particularly encouraged to read from the report that HKCA aims to have equaled the world's best practice on safety by the year 2008 through the application of its Safety Policy. I am confident that with the World Olympics scheduled to be held in Beijing in 2008, Hong Kong should be able to achieve a safety record on a par with the best players in the world.

3. Construction safety is, indeed, a much discussed topic - and one of considerable public concern. For the conference this year, HKCA has set a soul-searching theme : Construction Safety Innovation - Changes in a Critical Era. In the next 20 minutes, I will set the scene for exploring this meaningful and interesting topic. I will share with you briefly the Government's strategy for managing construction safety, the safety performance of the industry, and the challenges facing us in further improving the safety performance of our construction sector.

Strategy for Managing Construction Safety

4. The Hong Kong Government is firmly committed to protecting the occupational safety and health of its workforce, particularly those working in accident-prone industries. Indeed, enhancing the standards of work safety in the construction sector has always been high on the agenda of the Labour Department. We have been striving to bring about real improvement in this hazardous industry through a multi-pronged approach of legislation and enforcement; education and training; and promotion and publicity. We also believe that a proactive safety management approach with the ultimate objective of self-regulation by the duty holders is the key to enhancing the standards of occupational safety and health in Hong Kong.

Government as the Client of Public Works and Housing Projects

5. In addition to its role as the initiator and enforcer of occupational safety and health legislation, the Government also plays an important role as the client of public works and housing projects. It is our firm belief that the Government must lead by example and demonstrate the best practices in safety and health management in its projects. Over the years, the Government has introduced a number of measures, including the Independent Safety Audit Programme, the Pay for Safety Scheme, the Safe Working Cycle and the regulatory actions against contractors with poor safety performance. All these measures aim to ensure that high standards of work safety are achieved by contractors of government projects.

6. Now, I would like to give you an overview of the safety performance of our construction industry in the past five years.

Construction Safety - the Current State of Play

7. Given its nature of work, the construction industry is inherently more hazardous than most other economic activities. It used to be the industry with the highest number of work accidents. It was not until the turn of the millennium that it was overtaken by the catering trade as the number one contributor of work accidents.

8. Through the concerted efforts of all the parties concerned, the safety performance of the construction industry has improved significantly over the years. Indeed, during the past five years we have witnessed a marked decline in its accident toll.

9. Back in 2000, the construction sector recorded a total of 11,925 accidents including 29 fatalities. They accounted for 35.4% of Hong Kong's industrial accidents, and 67.4% of the fatal cases. The accident rate per thousand workers was 149.8. In other words, roughly one out of every seven construction workers would be injured whilst at work in the year.

10. Five years on, we have seen impressive improvements in the safety performance of our construction industry. And the accident statistics tell the story. Both the number of accidents and accident rate have been falling in the past five consecutive years. In 2004, the number of industrial accidents in our construction industry dropped to 3,833 cases, down a significant 67.9% when compared with 2000. The accident rate per thousand workers decreased by 59.7% to 60.3. Fatal cases also dropped by 41.4% to 17. More encouragingly, this is not just a flash in the pan. We are witnessing a sustained improvement. In the first quarter of this year, the number of construction accidents stood at 677, representing a drop of 13% from 778 in the same period last year. The accident rate per thousand workers also fell 10.4% from 47.1 to 42.2. No doubt, this is a remarkable achievement and speaks volumes for the sterling efforts of all our stakeholders.

Construction Industry 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004
No. of industrial accidents 11,925
(29)
9,206
(28)
6,239
(24)
4,367
(25)
3,833
(17)
Accident rate per 1,000 workers 149.8 114.6 85.2 68.1 60.3

(Figures in brackets denote the number of fatalities)

Construction Safety in Public Sector Projects

11. While there has been impressive improvement in the safety performance of the construction industry over the years, it is particularly encouraging to note that public sector projects have performed even better. The accident rate per thousand workers for public sector sites was 81.7 in 2000. It dropped to 29.4 in 2004. More importantly, it should be noted that the accident rate of public sector sites was significantly lower than that of private sector sites, which stood at 233.7 in 2000 and 83.7 in 2004.

 

Accident rate per 1,000 workers
  2000 2001 2002 2003 2004
Public sector sites 81.7 68.9 53.6 40.4 29.4
Private sector sites 233.7 154.0 107.5 89.0 83.7

Safety Performance of Repair, Maintenance, Minor Alteration and Addition Works

12. In recent years, there has been growing concern over the spate of accidents involving repair, maintenance, minor alteration and addition (RMAA) works. Such works include the construction of village-type houses in the New Territories, minor alterations, repairs, maintenance and interior decoration of existing buildings. In the last couple of years, many serious accidents happened in the course of such works. As you are probably aware, last month two workers fell to their death while erecting a truss-out scaffold at the external wall of a building in San Po Kong.

13. The number of industrial accidents arising from RMAA works made up a considerable proportion of all reported accidents in the construction sector, and such proportion seems to be on the increase. In 2004, RMAA accidents accounted for more than one-third of all construction accidents and fatalities. The following table is rather telling.

 
No. of Industrial Accidents
  2000 2001 2002 2003 2004
All reported constructionindustrial accidents 11,925
(29)
9,206
(28)
6,239
(24)
4,367
(25)
3,833
(17)

No. of reported industrial accidents in RMAA Works
3,402
(12)
2,582
(4)
1,925
(10)
1,485
(8)
1,454
(6)
Percentage of RMAA accidents to all reported construction industrial accidents 28.5% 28.0% 30.9% 34.0% 37.9%
Percentage of RMAA fatal industrial accidents in the construction industry 41.4% 14.3% 41.7% 32.0% 35.3%

(Figures in brackets denote the number of fatalities)

Cost of Construction Accidents and Employees' Compensation Payments

14. Despite the general improvement in the safety performance of the construction industry, thousands of workers were still injured whilst at work on our construction sites. Some even lost their lives as a result. These accidents not only shatter the lives of accident victims and their families, but also incur huge economic losses for the construction industry as well as the community as a whole.

15. According to the estimates of the International Labour Organisation, the economic losses arising from work-related injuries and diseases amount to roughly 4% of the global GDP. For the construction industry, work accidents bring with them huge costs, both tangible and intangible, in terms of compensation payments, failure to meet project deadlines and the resulting financial penalties, lower staff morale and negative impact on corporate image. In Hong Kong, contractors with poor safety performance will also risk being suspended from tendering for public works projects.

16. As regards employees' compensation, 4,258 work injury cases, including 42 fatal cases, were settled in 2004 in the construction sector in Hong Kong. Some $397 million in compensation was paid to the accident victims or dependants of deceased employees. The productivity loss arising from these accidents amounted to some 490,000 workdays. On average, each construction accident incurred about $92,000 in compensation and 114 workdays in productivity loss.

17. That is only the tip of the iceberg. The total cost of work accidents is certainly far greater than the amount of statutory compensation. Nevertheless, the dollar value of these payments is enough to remind us of the huge economic losses that construction accidents are capable of incurring.

The Challenges

18. For all the improvements which I have just mentioned, the safety record of our construction industry is still not something that we can be proud of. This is particularly true when we take into consideration the fact that construction accidents still account for a considerable proportion of all industrial accidents and, indeed, the bulk of industrial fatalities. In 2004, for instance, 21.9% of the industrial accidents and 70.8% of the fatal cases happened on construction sites. More regrettably, almost all of these accidents could have been prevented had adequate safety precautions been taken. The two fatal accidents last month - one involving a tower crane and the other a truss-out scaffold - that claimed the lives of three workers should serve as a grim reminder to us all of the need for the industry to step up its efforts and vigilance to protect the work safety of our workforce.

19. I would like to appeal to the industry to put in more efforts in four specific areas to improve its safety performance, namely:-
(a) Safety in RMAA works;
(b) Tackling the most common causes of fatal and serious accidents;
(c) Closing the gap between the safety performance of public sector sites and that of private sector sites; and
(d) Enhancing safety awareness.

(a) Safety in RMAA Works

20. Let me first deal with the safety in RMAA works. As I have said, the number of accidents arising from RMAA accounts for a considerable proportion of all construction accidents. In 2004, the proportion went up to almost 38%. In the last couple of years, a number of fatal accidents involving such works have attracted much public attention. You would certainly recall cases of workers falling from collapsed truss-out scaffolds while repairing buildings; workers being overcome by poisonous gases while working in manholes; and electricians getting electrocuted while doing maintenance work, to name but a few.

21. The majority of these works have been undertaken by small contractors, employing only a few workers with work activities lasting for only a short period of time. Works of such a scale are not required to be reported to the Labour Department. As a result, many such works would not come to our notice until something serious has happened.

22. To tackle the problem, the Labour Department has adopted a special strategy to monitor such works. In addition to routine inspections, our Occupational Safety Officers carry out patrol operations covering districts and areas to detect such works. Our operations demand high mobility and flexibility. Therefore, our officers not only step up point-to-point inspections on normal working days, but also at night and during holidays to clamp down on offending contractors. We have adopted a more tactical approach. We have also established a reporting mechanism with the Hong Kong Association of Property Management Companies through which members of the Association will notify the Labour Department of high-risk property renovation and maintenance works.

23. In addition to tackling the problem on the law enforcement front, the Labour Department has also strengthened promotion and publicity with a view to bringing home our safety messages to the small contractors as well as their workers.

24. Despite all our efforts, I regret to say that serious accidents have continued to happen in connection with RMAA works, like the double fatalities I have just quoted. Clearly, the Government alone would not be able to solve the problem. It is imperative for the industry to explore in earnest and work in concert with the Government as to how this problem can be more effectively tackled.

(b) Tackling Common Causes of Fatal and Serious Accidents

25. Accident statistics indicate that "fall of person from height" remains the single most important cause of fatalities in the construction industry. During the five-year period from 2000 to 2004, 43.9% of the fatal accidents in the construction industry could be attributed to that cause. Among these cases, nearly half of them involved bamboo scaffolds, working platforms/falsework or unfenced dangerous places. Sadly, these risks are by no means unforeseeable, and we have known how to prevent them for decades. Yet, such accidents still continue to happen.

26. The Labour Department is determined to tackle the problem. As a major initiative this year, we will carry out large-scale enforcement campaigns targeting at unsafe scaffolds and dangerous places on construction sites. In addition to enforcement actions, we will also launch major publicity campaigns to bring home the safety message. Here again, the effort of the Government alone is not enough. People in the industry, site management and workers alike must work hand-in-hand to eliminate the risks and implement safety measures to prevent accidents from happening.

(c) Closing the gap between the safety performance of public sector sites and private sector sites

27. The safety performance in respect of public sector sites has been much better than that of private sector. For the construction industry as a whole to further improve its safety record, the private sector must catch up with the public sector. This would be possible if the best practices adopted in managing public sector sites are applied to private sector sites.

28. In this connection, I am pleased to note that the Real Estate Developers Association and HKCA have jointly signed the Safety Partnering Agreement providing a framework for implementing measures such as the "Pay for Safety Scheme". I would urge the industry to take it from there and proceed in earnest to reform the management of private sites.

(d) Enhancing Safety and Health Awareness

29. It has always been my belief that the ultimate prevention of workplace accidents and occupational diseases lies in the workforce having a strong safety and health awareness and a positive safety culture. Over the years, the Labour Department has been working in close partnership with our stakeholders in organising promotional activities and publicity to raise safety awareness. Our educational and training programmes, including "mandatory basic safety training" introduced a few years ago, are also geared towards helping the industry to promote a safety culture. To date, over 700,000 construction workers have completed the "Green Card" course. And I was among the first batch of graduates!

30. By and large, safety awareness has improved generally over the years. However, for safety culture to take hold, the industry has to do more. Safety must become a way of life and be upheld as one of the most fundamental values of life. To this end, I would urge the industry in general and contractors in particular to really 'think outside the box' and come up with innovative initiatives to make the workforce internalise this important value. After all, promoting safety awareness must be an on-going commitment.

Concluding Remarks

31. In closing, I would like to reiterate that we have come a long way in promoting construction safety, but we still have a lot more to do. In terms of work safety performance, we still have some way to go before attaining the world-class status. We have to tackle, as a matter of urgency, the safety problems associated with RMAA works. We still have to address decades-old safety problems like "workers falling from heights'. Another challenge is to get the private sector sites to measure up to the safety standards of public sector sites. Most important of all, the industry must work together to create the right conditions for a strong safety culture to take root. The conference today provides a perfect opportunity for us to reflect and put our heads together to ponder on the way forward. I am sure that, through our collective wisdom and concerted efforts, we will be able to rise to the challenge.

32. Thank you.