Not your regular Sherlocks, these detectives hunt for ‘culprits’ of workplace accidents

For Bhindo Velaayudan, 36, and Lucas Ng, also 36, any call that they get for work usually means bad news. Very bad news, in fact.

As senior investigation officers with the Ministry of Manpower’s Occupational Safety and Health Division, Velaayudan and Ng investigate serious and often fatal, workplace accidents.

On the hunt for unsafe practices

And the “baddies” that they catch are often not human perpetrators, but unsafe practices in the workplace. Through the results of their work, they help bring closure to the living when accidents claim the lives of their loved ones.

Their work is undoubtedly meaningful, but it’s one that they wish they didn’t have to do.

Velaayudan, who has been an investigation officer since 2017, said: “People usually think that we are only interested in pursuing legal actions to penalise unsafe companies and individuals, but our job is more than just that. It’s about raising the industry’s collective safety standards so that we can prevent the same tragic accident from happening to others again.”

Ng mentioned that workers who get called in for interviews would often “feel that they are in trouble”, or are fearful that what they say may cause them to lose their jobs. But that is not the case, the two assured. “It is to gain insight into the chain of events and unsafe work processes or habits that might have contributed to the accident, so that we can seek justice for the deceased,” Ng shared.

“Every worker ought to be able to go home safely to their loved ones,” added Velaayudan.

Fatal cases

The fatal cases that they’ve investigated are often doubly tragic not just because of the loss of life, but also how the accidents could have been easily prevented.

Velaayudan recalled one heart-tugging case: “There was this workplace accident involving a boss of a company in his 60s who decided to install racks in his new hardware store alone on a public holiday. He was accessing a poorly maintained ladder when it gave way, causing him to fall from a height that was less than two metres.

Without realising the extent of his internal injuries, he went back home as if nothing had happened. He later succumbed to his injuries in the hospital.”

Velaayudan shared that the accident “was a stark reminder that the cause of an accident can be as simple as the improper use of a ladder”, and that “accidents can happen to anyone at the workplace across all levels”. She also stressed upon the importance of staying vigilant while at work.

Similarly for Ng, one case which he attended to was poignant for a more personal reason.

The deceased had fallen from a lorry when helping a worker to load raw materials onto the vehicle. Investigations showed that the man in his 60s might have had pre-existing coronary artery disease, resulting in him losing consciousness momentarily before he fell.

Said Ng: “This case was especially impactful for me as my dad, who also suffers from coronary artery disease, had a similar encounter where he lost consciousness momentarily while working. He was fortunate to have a colleague around to hold him and send him to the hospital for treatment in time.”

For Velaayudan, the job has made her all too aware that “tomorrow” isn’t always guaranteed.

“As an IO, I always have to face the tragic aftermath of a workplace accident. This made me realise how fragile our lives can be and that there are many things we can do to prevent such accidents.”

And the causes of workplace accidents are usually due to various factors such as the lack of safety measures, poor supervision or inadequate training for workers, added Velaayudan.

“Safety is everyone’s responsibility. It should be a way of life, and not just something we are compelled to follow.”

Ng agreed: “An accident is never just an ‘accident’; there are always tell-tales signs before an accident happens, such as unsafe work processes, which people fail to realise and act on. Before they know it, someone has paid for the mistake with their life.”

Going deep with the investigations

Forensic detectives they are not, but Ng and Velaayudan’s job share some similarities to crime scene investigators: the methodical way they approach an accident scene and the critical analysis needed.

Both of them highlighted the importance of being open-minded and not concluding the cause of the accident immediately based on what they see at the scene. One simple reason? “It is possible that the scene had been altered,” shared Velaayudan.

Being able to listen intently, ask probing questions, but yet not believing everything that you hear is also key.

“A strong sense of curiosity is also important. Investigation officers need to be inquisitive about everything that is said, presented and seen during the course of investigations,” said Ng.

A typical workday for the pair could involve being on stand-by to receive a case, assessing the evidence obtained from the accident scene and interviewing witnesses or parties that can establish the facts of the case. They would also have to collate and assess autopsy reports to determine the cause of death, recommend prosecution actions against liable parties, and attend court hearings for their cases.

Of course, sometimes a ‘typical’ work day doesn’t turn out the way they expect.

Velaayudan described the lengths they go to in the line of duty to uncover the truth about a case.

Said Velaayudan: “There was a drowning accident that happened in the morning at around 5am to 6am on a boat. To simulate the exact work conditions, my boss and I went to the accident scene in the wee hours of the morning on another day with similar weather conditions.

“Doing this enabled us to uncover several key findings for the case as the work conditions we saw when we responded to the accident scene proved to be vastly different from the time of the actual accident.”

Being highly meticulous and leaving no stone unturned is definitely a strict requirement for the job, and one that the pair take very seriously.

Said Velaayudan: “Investigation officers have to be meticulous in collating information and evidence, revisiting findings to ensure our assessments and recommendations are as accurate as possible, and discerning the facts from assumptions, and sometimes even lies.”

It can get stressful, added Velaayudan, who has been part of the organisation in different capacities for more than a decade.

“When the evidence at the scene is minimal, I have to think out of the box in seeking loopholes or gaps that I may have missed so as to ensure that I covered all grounds before recommending legal actions against the liable parties,” said Velaayudan. Ng agrees that taking into account all perspectives and possible blind spots are critical in ensuring a fair outcome.

Dealing with job stresses

For Ng, who has been in the job for two years, seeing the body of an accident victim on site and having to keep his composure is something he still struggles with.

“Being an investigation officer requires not just critical thinking and problem-solving skills, but also good emotional intelligence, as we need to be able to face all kinds of accident scenes without bringing in our emotions when working on the case,” said Ng.

Where emotions are needed however, are when they have to speak to families of the deceased.

Ng added: “We have to stand ready to offer support and comfort to the family members who are usually devastated after hearing the news and unsure of what to do next. We will also try our best to keep them updated on our investigation findings, as well as on whether we are looking to charge any parties involved.”

But what drives both of them to do their best in the job is ensuring that justice is served and that families of the deceased get the closure they need.

Said Ng: “It saddens me to know that every fatal workplace accident significantly changes the lives of the victim’s family members, causing some of them to grow up in incomplete families.

“It keeps me going knowing that I play a role in seeking justice for the victims and closure for their family members, as well as prevent similar accidents from recurring so that workers can go home safely and healthily to their loved ones every day.”

Work in Progress is a sponsored series by MOM to open our eyes to the work that goes on behind investigating workplace accidents