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Poor safety ‘culture’ and the question of commander’s experience on safety

Dear fellow Singaporeans and soldiers,

It is with a heavy heart that I read of the demise of CFC (NS) Pang whilst on reservist training in New Zealand.

I am writing this article to provide some clarity and my opinion on the circumstances of this tragic occurrence.

I am writing this article as a concerned Singaporean, National Serviceman (NSman) and a person with experience in the field of Workplace Health & Safety (WHS) in civilian industries.

CFC (NS) Pang served with Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) as an Armament Technician; to put it simply, he services and repairs weapons. In this case, the Singapore Self-Propelled Howitzer (SSPM) which is an artillery weapon mounted onto an armoured vehicle (photo above).

CFC (NS) Pang’s vocation as an Armament Technician was in the capacity of an Operationally Ready National Serviceman or commonly known as an NSman or reservist soldier. Singaporean males serve 2 years of Full-Time National Service (NSF) at around the age of 18 years old and upon completion of this term become part of a reservist force called NSmen. NSmen are called-up for periodic training and exercises to maintain their skills as soldiers. This was the case for CFC (NS) Pang, he was an actor and a reservist soldier on exercise in New Zealand.

The SAF reports that there were two other soldiers with CFC (NS) Pang when this incident occurred. It is in my opinion that these two other soldiers were the Gunner and Commander (usually the rank of Third Sergeant).

The reports stipulate that CFC (NS) Pang was under the gun barrel when the incident occurred. It is obvious that the artillery gun was not functioning as it should, hence the need for CFC (NS) Pang to rectify the issue; that was his vocation and job.

The gun barrel was in a raised position and it was report by the SAF that CFC (NS) Pang sustained serious injuries when the gun barrel was lowered. It is in my opinion that CFC (NS) sustained crush injuries to his chest and abdomen as a direct result of the gun barrel being lowered onto him while he was servicing the equipment.

The gun barrel may have been unknowingly lowered by another soldier onto CFC (NS) Pang or CFC (NS) Pang may have accidentally caused it to drop onto himself e.g. rupture of the hydraulic lines.

In safety conscious civilian industries, when a technician is servicing or repairing a piece of equipment, one of the most important tasks is to ‘de-energise’ the equipment. To ‘de-energise’ an equipment essentially means to ensure that no energy is running through it e.g. electrical, hydraulic, pneumatic, etc.

An example of ‘de-energising’ in the civilian world is of a technician repairing hydraulic hoses inside the engine of a Boeing 747 aeroplane. Procedures are put in place by reputable airlines to ensure that the engine cannot be started from the cockpit as there is a technician in the engine, this could simply be in the form of ‘locking out’ the ignition switch and ‘tagging’ it as under maintenance. This is commonly called ‘lock-out & tag-out’.

Another practice in civilian industries is to secure suspended loads with solid anchors. A simple example is vehicle mechanics repairing faults under a car. No reputable workshop would allow their mechanics to work under a car that is held up by a hydraulic jack or hoist only. Leaking hydraulic fluid from the jack or hoist would cause the car to crush onto the mechanic. To overcome this issue, vehicle stands are used to securely hold up cars after jacking and the hoist pillars are secured with locking pins.

As a soldier in the SAF myself, I have seen numerous instances where the designated Safety Officer for a training exercise has little to no training and/or experience to undertake this important role. In my experience, the Safety Officer role is usually tasked to a junior officer of Second Lieutenant (2LT) or Lieutenant (LTA) rank who just ‘copies and pastes’ the Safety documentation from previous sessions. These safety dockets address simple issues like hydration, rest, evacuation routes, medics, etc. They do not address technical issues like I’ve mentioned before. I do not blame the young Safety Officers for this, he or she does not know any better. The senior commanders at battalion, brigade and division levels and upwards need to take accountability. This poor ‘culture’ is the root cause.

Commander’s experience plays a big part as well. Personally, I felt the safest in the SAF when I was undergoing training with the former School of Infantry Specialists (SISPEC). SISPEC was a training school where the junior commanders were Non-Commissioned Warrant Officers with at least 10 years’ experience in the field. Although the safety documentation was no different, these Warrant Officers had the experience and ‘common sense’ to ensure the safety of their men.

I urge my fellow Singaporeans to demand for an independent inquiry into the circumstances that lead to CFC (NS) Pang’s death. A panel of experts with varying backgrounds in the military, corporate cultures, incident investigations, root-cause-analysis and WHS needs to address this matter. To be truly transparent, the panel needs to be made up of both Singaporean and foreign experts who have no links to the SAF and Singapore government.

To CFC (NS) Pang’s family and loved ones, I understand that no inquires, reports, analysis will ever bring Aloysius back. I urge you to be strong during this difficult time and not fall for the SAF’s false compassion. You would have received numerous calls from very senior SAF Commanders and ministers; they’ve even ‘gone out of their way’ to fly medical expertise to attend to Aloysius in New Zealand. The key question you need to ask yourselves is; where were they before all of this? Was enough done to ensure he was in a safe working environment? This independent inquiry can only eventuate with your support and blessing.

Yang Pertama Dan Utama, A Singapore Soldier