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NEA strengthens safety practices after the fatal 2021 Tuas Incineration Plant explosion

Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu gives an update following NTUC Assistant Secretary-General Melvin Yong’s question on safety measures.

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By Shukry Rashid 09 Jan 2024
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(Top photo credit: Facebook/Singapore Civil Defence Force)


The National Environment Agency (NEA) has strengthened safety practices since the 23 September 2021 Tuas Incineration Plan explosion.


The measures include operational enhancements at waste management facilities and a reassessment of the agency’s workplace safety and health practices at an organisational level.


Minister for Sustainability and the Environment (MSE) Grace Fu said this in Parliament on 9 January 2024 during her ministerial statement regarding the incident.


Commitment to Safety and Operational Excellence


Responding to Members of Parliament, including NTUC Assistant Secretary-General Melvin Yong who asked about measures to improve workplace safety, Ms Fu said that NEA’s internal investigation panel has made recommendations to strengthen the plant’s work system and processes involving high-voltage works.


She said: “All the recommendations were accepted by NEA senior management and have been implemented at Tuas South Incineration Plant, the only waste incineration plant which NEA currently operates.


“NEA also shared the recommendations with waste incineration plants that are privately operated, for their own process safety reviews. The private operators have acknowledged the recommendations.”


Ms Fu added she cannot detail the specific recommendations due to the ongoing court proceedings.


In December 2023, NEA and two of its officers were charged under the Workplace Safety and Health Act for their involvement in the incident.


At the facility level, NEA is reviewing the operations of waste management facilities, including Semakau Landfill.


Ms Fu said the review is part of a broader set of operational reviews to strengthen operational excellence, safety and resilience.


She explained: “This ensures that NEA responds effectively to changes in the operating environment.”


As part of the review, NEA has also appointed an external advisory panel comprising senior industry leaders experienced in managing large facilities and operations.


The panel will advise NEA on measures to strengthen operations and safety at its waste management facilities.


NEA is also engaging consultants for a technical review of existing processes.


At the organisational level, NEA has also taken steps to strengthen workplace safety and health further, taking reference from guidelines and best practices issued by the WSH Council.


NEA also called an organisational-wide safety time out to reaffirm its commitment to safety.


During this week-long safety time out, NEA reassessed its WSH practices and work processes, and NEA senior management conducted additional safety walkabouts and held discussions with officers on ways to improve WSH further.


“These efforts were over and above regular WSH activities and served as opportunities to re-emphasise the importance of WSH,” added Ms Fu.


NEA is also in the process of seeking external validation of its WSH practices through the bizSAFE Level 3 risk management audit, slated to take place later this year.


In terms of governance at NEA’s board level, the board was restructured last year to include a dedicated risk committee to oversee and manage key enterprise risks, including workplace safety which is a top priority for NEA.


Previously, key enterprise risks were overseen by the audit committee, which reported to the board.


The formation of the risk committee is part of NEA’s efforts to continually strengthen the governance of its risk management.


Ms Fu said the incident “was a painful chapter for NEA and the MSE family.”


She added: “NEA has implemented measures to prevent similar incidents from taking place. More broadly, as part of its continuous journey of improvement, NEA has strengthened WSH at its waste management facilities and across the entire organisation.”


Dedicated WSH officers


Following Ms Fu’s statement, Mr Yong sought clarification. He asked if there were dedicated WSH officers to look into the risks associated with operating an incineration plant and if proper risk assessments were done.


Ms Fu replied that NEA has dedicated staff to undertake WSH responsibilities.


She added: “We have taken steps to continue to strengthen WSH practices including in the area of risk assessment, and we will work very closely with the industry, the private operators, together with MOM to ensure compliance with existing laws and regulations.”


Union’s response


Two of the three engineers involved in the incident, Mr Kwok Yeow Wai and Mr Wee Eng Leng, lost their lives.


Mr Low Yin Choon, suffered third-degree burns during the incident.


Ms Fu said that following the incident, NEA provided the families of all three officers with care and support, covered all medical expenses, and provided workplace injury compensation.


Mr Low has since recovered and returned to work.


In response to Ms Fu’s statement, Amalgamated Union of Public Employees (AUPE) General Secretary Sanjeev Tiwari said: “Any incident, especially fatal ones, is one too many. AUPE is glad that NEA has assured that they will continue to enhance safety at the workplace.”


The surviving victim, Mr Low, is an AUPE member.


Following the incident, Mr Low was given a daily hospitalisation benefit as part of the union’s mutual aid scheme.


AUPE also gave a token sum of $1,000 to Mr Low, and $500 each to the other two victims.