Using buses to ferry workers may lead to 'doubling' of number of large private buses: Amy Khor

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SINGAPORE - MAY 05:  Foreign workers working in the essential services practise safe distancing on-board a lorry on May 5, 2020 in Singapore. Singapore is now battling to control a huge outbreak in the coronavirus (COVID-19) local transmission cases among the migrant workers.  (Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)
(Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — Transporting workers in key industries by bus may require a doubling or even tripling of the number of large private buses in the industry today, said Senior Minister of State for Transport Amy Khor in Parliament on Wednesday (9 March).

"In our engagements with private bus operators, they have told us that there are simply insufficient private buses and drivers to transport the large number of workers in the manufacturing and construction, marine and process sectors, especially when other activities like tourism resume post-COVID," said Dr Khor.

Even with multiple and staggered trips, the shortage of bus drivers would be another "binding constraint" if companies fully transit to buses to ferry their workers.

Speaking during the Committee of Supply (COS) debate, Dr Khor was responding to Radin Mas Member of Parliament Melvin Yong's request for an update on measures to improve the safety of workers transported on lorries.

She noted that there had been extensive consultations with, among others, trade associations in the construction sector such as Singapore Contractors Association, the marine and process sectors, and private bus operators.

Many small and medium enterprises, especially in the specialist trade, face constraints. For example, they may need to transport a small crew with bulky equipment to several different locations in a single day. "It will be operationally challenging and inefficient for them to use buses for workers, and separately transport their equipment in lorries." said Dr Khor.

Nevertheless, some firms have already shifted away from using lorries for some projects. For example, Tong Tar Transport was asked by a multinational construction company to ferry about 3,000 workers of their main and sub-contractors between dormitories to the construction site via buses.

"This was a large-scale endeavour that involved coordination among various bus operators, but shows that it is possible under the right circumstances. We encourage more in the industry to follow," said Dr Khor.

Last May, figures released by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) showed that the total number of deaths involving lorry accidents, and the number of deaths per 1,000 lorries on the road, have been rising in recent years. There was also a spate of fatal accidents involving migrant workers on lorries.

Seat belts in rear decks of lorries 'not feasible'

LTA has also carried out consultations with motor vehicle dealers and workshops on suggestions that seatbelts be required in lorries. The verdict: the proposal is not feasible and could even pose safety risks.

"Commercial lorries today are not designed for seatbelts to be installed in the rear deck, as the floorboards in the rear deck might not be sufficiently strong to keep the seatbelts anchored in the event of an accident," said Dr Khor.

"There are also liability issues for such modifications without the support of the lorry manufacturers. Without the industry being able to bring in lorries with seatbelts and vouch for their safety, it is not prudent to mandate this."

Speed limits for lorries, rain covers

Dr Khor also introduced several new safety initiatives for workers on lorries.

First, all lorries will have to install some form of speed management device. Speed limiters are already mandated for all goods vehicles with maximum laden weight (MLW) of 12 tonnes and above. The Traffic Police will be expanding the speed limiter regime to encompass all lorries of MLW above 3.5 tonnes.

Second, the Manpower Ministry (MOM) will require employers to provide sufficient rest for their drivers, particularly those who play dual roles of a driver and ground worker. All lorries ferrying workers must also have a designated person as the vehicle person-in-charge, who will be empowered to stop a driver from driving if he is deemed unfit to drive.

In addition, LTA, with the support of MOM, will mandate all lorries which are used to ferry workers to be fitted with rain covers. Currently, such lorries must be fitted with canopies to provide shelter, including against inclement weather.

The rain covers, which are typically waterproof canvas tarps installed on the sides of the lorry rear deck, will complement the canopies.

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