Ministerial Statement by Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment, on Charges Against NEA in Relation to the Incident at Tuas Incineration Plant for Parliament Sitting on 9 January 2024
1 On 26 December 2023, charges were filed against the National Environment Agency (NEA) and two senior NEA officers, in relation to an explosion that took place at an electrical switch room at Tuas Incineration Plant on 23 September 2021.
2 The incident was extremely painful for all of us in the MSE Family. Two NEA officers, Senior Engineering Manager and Head of the Electrical Maintenance Branch Mr Kwok Yeow Wai, and Executive Engineering Manager, Mr Wee Eng Leng, lost their lives. Between them, they contributed nearly 85 years of service to NEA. They continue to be missed, and will be remembered as caring and good-natured colleagues. A third officer, Engineering Manager Mr Low Yin Choon, suffered third-degree burns during the incident. He has since recovered and returned to work.
3 Following the incident, NEA provided the families of all three officers with care and support, covered all medical expenses, and provided workplace injury compensation. Till this day, NEA remains in contact with the families of the two late officers.
4 The charges against NEA and its officers are serious. I had indicated, on the day the charges were filed, that I would be making a statement in Parliament about the incident and charges. In addition, Members have asked questions. Ms Poh Li San asked about how NEA has strengthened its workplace safety practices and culture. Mr Melvin Yong asked about measures put in place to ensure such an incident does not recur. These are important questions which I will address.
5 However, as the case is currently before the courts, I seek Members’ understanding that what I can share today will be limited, so as not to prejudice the ongoing judicial proceedings. For example, I will not be able to go into details of the incident itself, or what contributed to the incident.
6 In my statement, I will cover: briefly, the incident, and how it was handled by MSE and NEA; NEA’s response to the charges; and NEA’s ongoing commitment to workplace safety.
Account of Incident
7 Let me first briefly recount the incident. Most of this information is already in the public domain.
8 On the afternoon of 23 September 2021, an Induced Draft Fan could not be switched off from the central control room, where the equipment is normally controlled. The Induced Draft Fan is used to extract gases from the incineration process for discharge via the chimney, and is about two metres wide.
9 Mr Kwok Yeow Wai, Mr Wee Eng Leng and Mr Low Yin Choon from the Electrical Maintenance Branch obtained permission from the control room to troubleshoot the electrical fault. Mr Kwok, Mr Wee and Mr Low were the three most senior officers in the Electrical Maintenance Branch.
10 The troubleshooting led them to an electrical switch room. At the electrical switch room, a localised explosion happened near the switchgear. Mr Kwok died at the scene, and Mr Wee was seriously injured. Mr Wee succumbed to his injuries three days later. Mr Low was also injured in the explosion, but has recovered and returned to work.
11 I will now speak about how NEA responded in the immediate aftermath of the incident. First, what was done to ensure safety at the Tuas Incineration Plant and other incineration plants. Second, what was done to investigate the incident. These were done concurrently.
12 Immediately after the incident, Tuas Incineration Plant stopped receiving waste for incineration and was safely shut down. On 27 September 2021, NEA was issued a Stop Work Order by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to cease any process or works in relation to electrical servicing and maintenance. During the period of the Stop Work Order, NEA engineering officers carried out and completed comprehensive checks on machinery and reviewed all safety procedures at the plant. Extensive checks and tests were also conducted by an external licensed electrical engineer. NEA did likewise at Tuas South Incineration Plant. NEA also notified private operators of incineration plants about the incident and requested them to review their safety procedures and equipment. The private operators acknowledged the requests.
13 With MOM’s clearance, Tuas Incineration Plant resumed partial operations on 13 October 2021. The waste that had been stored in the bunker from before the incident was then incinerated, but the plant did not receive new waste. Incineration of the waste in the bunker was necessary to prevent the build-up of potentially flammable gas from the decomposition of waste. The Stop Work Order was eventually lifted by MOM on 24 November 2021.
14 The Tuas Incineration Plant had been in operation since 1986. With the commencement of operations at TuasOne Waste-To-Energy Plant which was developed to replace the Tuas Incineration Plant while catering for growth in Singapore’s waste treatment capacity, NEA stopped operations at the Tuas Incineration Plant in February 2022, after 36 years of service, as planned. The Plant was eventually decommissioned in July 2022. During the Plant’s 36 years of operations, there were no other serious or fatal work injuries at the Plant.
15 In parallel with these safety measures, investigations were also carried out immediately after the incident. MOM, SCDF and other technical agencies carried out their independent investigations. NEA fully cooperated with these investigations.
16 NEA also convened an internal Investigation Panel to ascertain the events which led to the incident, identify the possible causes, and recommend additional measures to prevent the recurrence of such an incident.
17 NEA’s internal Investigation Panel comprised four members. It was chaired by a Group Director in NEA who had experience in the operations of incineration plants but was not managing such plants at the time. The other three members were two Divisional Directors from the Ministry and NEA, and a former General Manager of the Tuas South Incineration Plant. NEA also engaged an external technical expert to provide an independent review of the affected equipment, and to advise the panel on the likely cause of the localised explosion.
18 The Panel reported to the then Chief Executive Officer of NEA. The Panel’s findings were shared with the NEA Board and the Ministry. The findings were also shared with MOM investigators.
19 MOM has since concluded its investigation of the incident. Charges have been filed against NEA as a body corporate and two senior NEA officers.
20 NEA has been charged under section 12(1) of the Workplace Safety and Health Act, read with section 20 and punishable under section 50(b), for failing to take, so far as was reasonably practicable, such measures as were necessary to ensure the safety and health of its employees at work. Two senior officers in NEA have also been charged. Mr Ng Wah Yong, the General Manager of the plant at the time, as well as Mr Lee Yew Binn Christopher, Director of the Waste Infrastructure Operations and Management Division at that time, were charged under section 15(3A) of the Workplace Safety and Health Act, for negligently endangering the safety of others at the Plant without reasonable cause.
21 NEA is studying its charge in consultation with its legal counsel. The two senior officers charged have been re-deployed to non operational roles. It is important that we let the proceedings take its course, and not come to any premature conclusion.
Commitment to Safety and Operational Excellence
22 I will next cover the measures which have been put in place at NEA’s incineration plant to ensure that such incidents do not recur and how NEA has strengthened its workplace safety practices and culture. This will address the questions filed by Mr Melvin Yong and Ms Poh Li San.
23 With the benefit of information obtained from its investigations, NEA’s internal Investigation Panel made recommendations to strengthen the plant’s work system and processes involving high-voltage works. I am not able to detail the specific recommendations due to the ongoing court proceedings. Nonetheless, 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.
24 Workplace safety is a continuous journey, and it is important that we learn the lessons from each incident to make our systems and operations even safer and prevent recurrence of a similar incident.
25 Having covered the measures that were put in place shortly after the incident, I will now turn to how NEA is strengthening its workplace safety practices and culture, in a broader sense.
Waste management facilities
26 First, at waste management facilities. NEA is currently undertaking an operational review of its waste management facilities, which includes not just Tuas South Incineration Plant, but also other facilities such as Semakau Landfill. This is part of a broader set of operational reviews to strengthen operational excellence, safety, and resilience. This ensures that NEA responds effectively to changes in the operating environment.
27 As part of the operational review for waste management facilities, NEA has appointed an External Advisory Panel (or EAP), comprising senior industry leaders who have experience managing large facilities and operations. The EAP is advising NEA on ways to strengthen operations and safety at its waste management facilities.
28 NEA is also in the process of engaging consultants to undertake a technical review of existing operational processes and controls, which includes but is not limited to safety.
29 Next, at the organisational level. NEA has also taken steps to further strengthen workplace safety and health, taking reference from guidelines and best practices issued by the WSH Council.
30 After the charges were filed, NEA also called an organisational wide Safety Time Out to reaffirm its commitment to safety. During this week-long Safety Time Out, NEA re-assessed its WSH practices and work processes, and NEA senior management conducted additional safety walkabouts and held discussions with officers on ways to further improve WSH. These efforts were over and above regular WSH activities and served as opportunities to re-emphasise the importance of WSH.
31 NEA is also in the process of seeking external validation of its WSH practices through the bizSAFE Level 3 Risk Management Audit, which will take place later this year.
32 In terms of governance at the Board level, the NEA 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. Key enterprise risks were previously overseen by the Audit Committee, which reported to the Board. The formation of a Risk Committee is part of NEA’s efforts to continually strengthen the governance of its risk management.
33 The localised explosion at Tuas Incineration Plant in 2021 was a painful chapter for NEA and the MSE family. As I have set out in my statement, 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.
Possible impact on personnel matters
34 The charge faced by NEA is a serious one. Two of its officers have also been charged. NEA has implemented all recommendations made by the internal Investigation Panel following the incident and strengthened its workplace safety culture and practices. It would be premature to comment on the court’s decision and the impact of the decision. After the Court’s decision is released, my Ministry will work with the Board of NEA to study the Court’s decision and assess how it should be reflected on personnel matters, including performance assessment, remuneration, and disciplinary action, if and where appropriate.
35 Mr Speaker, workplace safety and health (WSH), is a top priority for my Ministry and statutory boards, including NEA, to keep our operational and frontline workers safe. In response to some questions raised earlier and an MOM PQ, I would like to add that WSH is one of NEA’s key Corporate KPIs. WSH is also taken into consideration for performance assessment and bonuses. NEA has a dedicated WSH team supporting senior management to strengthen WSH culture and capabilities. Across NEA’s premises and facilities, there are also WSH committees and appointment holders that oversee and manage WSH risk in the organisation. We have continually sought improvements and enhancements to the way we work, and will continue to strive to do even better. We will continue to focus on and emphasise the importance of building a collective and strong WSH culture.
36 The charges against NEA and its two senior officers are now before the courts, and going forward, they will be addressed as the legal process runs its course. In the meantime, NEA and all our officers will continue to carry out their duties in service of Singapore and our people. I urge all of us to play our part to ensure workplace safety and health, so that every worker can return home safely to their loved ones.
37 Mr Speaker, in Mandarin, please.
38 国家环境局和两名高级职员因 2021 年 9 月 23 日在大士垃圾焚化厂 发生的一场爆炸事件被控抵触《工作场所安全与卫生法令 》。两名环境 局高级工程师在爆炸中不幸丧命。另一名工程师也在爆炸中受重伤。
39 事件发生后，人力部、民防部队和其它相关机构同时展开独立调查 国家环境局也组织了一个内部调查小组以建议额外措施防止类似事件重 演。除此之外，国家环境局将在今年较迟时候对旗下废物管理设施进行更 广泛的运作检讨，并索取外界对其工作场所安全和卫生措施的认可。
40 国家环境局及其员工面对的控状极为严重。我们严肃看待对国家环 境局以及其高级职员所接到的起诉。确保工作场所安全是永无休止的工作。这也是永续发展与环境部及旗下法定机构重中之重的任务。确保工作 场所的安全人人有责。我们希望每位员工都能安全回家，与家人团聚。
41 我在此为在事件中不幸逝世的郭耀维先生及魏湧霖先生致以深切哀 悼，并向他们的家人致以衷心慰问。
42 Mr Speaker, I will now take clarifications from Members.