Authorities consider introducing stricter penalties for West Kowloon fatal incident as Secretary Chris Sun emphasises accountability, 62-year-old supervisor arrested for possible manslaughter

Chris Sun

27th September 2023 – (Hong Kong) In a devastating incident at a construction site beneath West Kowloon’s Austin Road West, two male workers in 60s are suspected to have tragically lost their lives due to inhalation of hydrogen sulfide. The Hong Kong government has expressed concern over the incident and has taken action by arresting the 62-year-old supervisor surnamed Shum in accordance with relevant occupational safety and health regulations. There is a possibility of further arrests on additional charges, including manslaughter, at a later stage. Secretary for Security, Chris Tang Ping-keung, stated during a press conference held by the Task Force on Crime Eradication that Mr. Shum may face additional charges, including manslaughter. Reports indicate that the police located Mr. Shum in the early hours of today.

Secretary for Labour and Welfare, Chris Sun, addressed the matter on a radio program this morning (27th), emphasising that the accident occurred in a confined space. According to regulations, qualified personnel must assess the suitability of working in such spaces, post relevant information visibly, and provide adequate protective equipment. Preliminary investigations have revealed a lack of evidence indicating that qualified personnel had conducted a risk assessment beforehand, suggesting that proper procedures may not have been followed. Sun emphasised that any negligence in complying with regulations will be subject to legal consequences.

When queried about the responsibility for determining whether a work site qualifies as a confined space, including the site’s management, contractors, and frontline engineering supervisors, Chris Sun stated that all parties bear responsibility. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Ordinance, employers are required to ensure the safety of workers in their workplaces within reasonable bounds. Even if the project has been subcontracted, the associated safety responsibilities cannot be evaded. Initial findings indicate that the implicated construction site failed to comply with the required procedures outlined in the regulations. The government will not solely hold the engineering company responsible for frontline work accountable, disregarding the division of labour. Both parties will face scrutiny. The Labour Department and other relevant authorities will investigate the incident from various angles, while the government reevaluates its approach.

The adequacy of safety measures in confined space work has been called into question by the public. In response, Chris Sun highlighted the recent passage and enforcement of the new Occupational Safety and Health Ordinance in April of this year. The updated legislation includes significantly higher penalties and aims to send a clear message to society regarding the importance of occupational health and safety. Should severe negligence be proven in this incident, the government will consult with the Department of Justice to consider invoking the new penalties. This would enable the prosecution of employers for general liability under the “prosecutable offence” procedure, which carries a maximum penalty of a HKD 10 million fine and a two-year imprisonment term. Sun reiterated that only stricter penalties can serve as a deterrent.

Regarding inspection and education initiatives, Sun mentioned that the authorities will explore the possibility of requiring reports to be submitted to the Labour Department or relevant agencies whenever workers enter confined spaces. Since Monday (25th), the Labour Department has commenced inspections of confined spaces across all construction sites in Hong Kong, a process estimated to take two weeks. In the event of any violations, the authorities will order work cessation at the respective sites and pursue legal action as warranted.