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Speech by SEDL at HK Construction Association Annual Safety Conference


Following is the speech by the Secretary for Economic Development and Labour, Mr Stephen Ip, at the Hong Kong Construction Association Annual Safety Conference today (October 30) (English only):

Mr Wong, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,


It gives me great pleasure to be here this morning to take part in the Hong Kong Construction Association Annual Safety Conference. Let me, first of all, commend the HKCA for organising this conference which provides an ideal forum for key players in the industry to exchange views on the important subject of construction safety.

The construction industry is one of the biggest employers in Hong Kong and plays a crucial role in our economy. The construction industry has made valuable contributions to building Hong Kong into a world-class city and business hub. This includes our many public and private housing projects, our world-class international airport at Chek Lap Kok, the Tsing Ma Bridge, Convention and Exhibition Centre, and other superb infrastructure projects that are vital to our long-term development.

Safety Performance of the Construction Industry

We certainly take pride in all these achievements. At the same time, we recognize the importance of ensuring work safety on our construction sites. The construction industry, because of the nature of its work, poses more hazards than most other trades and has topped the league table of accident toll for years. Over the years, therefore, we have been working in close partnership with stakeholders of the industry to tackle the construction safety problem.

Our concerted efforts are certainly paying dividends. The past few years have seen remarkable improvement in the safety performance of the construction sector, as reflected by a number of indicators. For example: -

(a) Both the number of industrial accidents and the accident rate per 1,000 workers have fallen for three consecutive years from 1999 to 2001.

(b) The number of accidents dropped from some 19,600 in 1998 to about 9,200 in 2001, representing a reduction of 53%.

(c) The accident rate showed similar improvement. It fell from 248 in 1998 to 115 in 2001, representing a reduction of 54%.

(d) The number of fatalities also dropped by nearly 50%, from 56 cases in 1998 to 28 cases in 2001, which is a historical low.

(e) The improvement continued in the first half of 2002, which recorded a drop of 30.6% and 25.3% in the number of accidents and accident rate respectively over the same period last year.

What I have just quoted point to the fact that we have made headway in reducing work accidents in the construction sector. This is encouraging.

Recent Spate of Serious Accidents

Despite these improvements, we are alarmed by the spate of serious accidents on our work sites in recent months, particularly those involving workers falling from height. It is disheartening to know that accidents attributable to working at height have already claimed 15 lives this year. These accidents might all have been prevented if adequate safety measures had been taken. The tragedies remind us that much more need to be done to ensure the safety and health of our construction workforce.

For this reason, the Government has commenced blitz inspections to construction sites, with a view to improving work-at-height safety. During the first two weeks of the operation, our Occupational Safety Officers inspected over a thousand construction sites, issued 45 enforcement notices and initiated legal action against 33 contractors.

In addition, we have stepped up publicity to promote work-at-height safety. In collaboration with the Occupational Safety and Health Council, the Labour Department will soon be holding a forum on this subject. I invite all of you to participate in that forum.

Strategy in Tackling Construction Safety

The Government is fully committed to enhancing the standards of safety and health at work, focusing on those industries with high accident toll, such as the construction industry. We subscribe to the principle that the primary responsibility for safety and health at work lies with those who create the risks and those who work with them. Our strategy is, therefore, to foster self-regulation by duty-holders, and improve the safety performance of their workplaces, through legislation, enforcement, publicity as well as training.

The Legal Framework and Safety Management

I would like to talk about our legal framework and the future direction for ensuring safety and health at work. At present, we adopt both the goal-setting approach and the prescriptive approach in drawing up our safety legislation. In goal-setting, we do not lay down minimum standards in the statute and do not specify the means of complying with the standards. Instead, we set goals and allow alternative ways of compliance by duty-holders. Our long-term objective is to go for more self-regulation through the goal-setting approach. This is because we recognise the merits of this approach, namely that it is more flexible and responsive to evolving technologies and changing best practices.

Where necessary, we will also incorporate in our safety legislation the concepts of risk assessment and safety management which, together, would provide a solid foundation for self-regulation. In my view, the adoption of safety management system at enterprise level is the key to achieving self-regulation and, hence, long-term and sustainable improvement in work safety. The coming into force of the major parts of the Factories and Industrial Undertakings (Safety Management) Regulation in April this year marked a new era of the transition to the safety management approach.

The Regulation provides a legal framework for the implementation of safety management system. It requires certain high-risk industrial undertakings, including construction sites, with a workforce of 50 or more, to implement safety management systems of varying complexity. It also requires these industrial undertakings to conduct safety audits or reviews at regular intervals. I note that a considerable part of your programme today is devoted to this subject. I hope, through the discussion, you will share with each other your experience.

Focused Enforcement

On enforcement, we will continue to target our action at the poor performers in safety and health at work. They will be kept under close surveillance and pressed for improvement. For those who choose to ignore our advice, we will not hesitate to bring the full force of law against them. Our normal inspection and enforcement programme will be supplemented by special blitz operations that target at specific high-risk areas. The blitz campaign on work-at-height safety which I have just mentioned is an example.

Promotion and Education

Promotion and education are important supplements to legislation and enforcement. To prevent accidents, promotion of safety awareness, programmes for initiating attitude change at the shop floor, provision of sufficient instruction, training and supervision to the workforce are all important. Our promotion strategy is to enlist the support of stakeholders in our promotional campaigns, in order to make the best use of resources and maximize their impact.

Safety Awareness and Safety Training

The success of the safety management approach in bringing about improvement in the standards of safety and health at work depends to a large extent on the inculcation of a strong safety culture among employers, senior managers, supervisors and frontline workers. To this end, an ongoing training programme plays a vital role. It is also widely recognised that safety training for workers helps to enhance safety awareness and reduce accidents at the workplace.

It was on such conviction that the Government enacted the Factories and Industrial Undertakings (Amendment) Ordinance 1999 to provide for mandatory safety training for all persons employed in the construction and container handling industries. The employees are required to attend recognised safety training courses and obtain a certificate before they can be allowed to work on construction sites or for container handling establishments. Since the mandatory safety training provision came into effect on 1st May 2001, over 500,000 persons have already completed training and obtained certificates.

Safety as a Shared Responsibility

Ladies and Gentlemen, safety and health at work is an important item on our labour agenda, and we will strive for continuous improvements. But I must impress upon you that safety is a shared responsibility. The Government alone can hardly bring about long-term improvement in work safety. The achievement of this goal calls for the joint efforts of employers, contractors, employees, relevant professionals, related bodies and the Government. By working hand-in-hand, we stand to make a real difference in improving safety and health at work.

Control of Sub-contractors

The Administration intends to introduce into the Legislative Council in the current session an amendment to the Construction Sites (Safety) Regulations. The amendment will provide for holding the principal contractor, contractors and sub-contractors jointly and severally liable for offences under the Regulations. The proposal has been endorsed by the Labour Advisory Board. It will also address one of the concerns of the Construction Industry Review Committee (the "CIRC").

As you are all aware, under the existing provisions, compliance with the Construction Sites (Safety) Regulations is primarily a matter for the principal contractor. However, as the CIRC has rightly pointed out, this may, in some circumstances, absolve the offending subcontractors from their legal responsibilities. Our proposal is to enable prosecution action to be taken against those subcontractors who have direct control over safety matters in respect of their work activities. I must, however, stress that the proposed amendment will not, in any way, diminish the existing responsibility of the principal contractor under the Regulations for ensuring the overall safety and health at work on a construction site.

Construction Design and Management (CDM) Approach

Another important recommendation of the CIRC is for the Administration to review the need for introducing legislation similar to the UK's Construction (Design and Management) Regulations. The UK legislation takes on board all parties to a construction project who could influence the risks to those at work. It extends safety and health obligations to a new class of duty-holders, including clients, architects and engineers.

We share the view that the effective management of safety and health risks of a construction project should start from its design stage and be carried through subsequent phases of project development and implementation, and we have been promoting this concept for years. The Environment, Transport and Works Bureau and the Housing Authority are now trying out this approach in some of their projects, and we are keeping a close watch on their experience.

Closing Remarks

The construction industry has certainly made considerable progress in enhancing work safety. The challenge ahead for all of us is to consolidate our position and make further improvements. Although the task is particularly demanding in the current economic climate, the Government's commitment is clear, and I hope this commitment is shared by all of you. Construction safety is a matter of life or death. We look to all stakeholders to put in their best efforts and provide a safe work environment for our construction workers.

Thank you.

End/Wednesday, October 30, 2002


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