Underwater World in Singapore admits to safety lapses, uncovered after veteran diver died from stingray attack

The court heard that the safe work procedures that the former Underwater World implemented for diving-related works were found to be inadequate. — TODAY pic
The court heard that the safe work procedures that the former Underwater World implemented for diving-related works were found to be inadequate. — TODAY pic

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SINGAPORE, Jan 15 — A representative from the now-defunct attraction Underwater World Singapore pleaded guilty yesterday to several safety lapses, which surfaced after a veteran diver died in 2016 from being stung in the chest by a stingray.

The company’s failings did not directly lead to Philip Chan’s death, which had been ruled a tragic misadventure by a coroner in 2017. 

The firm admitted to one count of failing to ensure the safety and health of its employees. This included not providing adequate recovery procedures in an emergency during diving operations.

Back in June 2016, the oceanarium that was run by Haw Par Corporation announced that it was closing and it was starting to transfer its marine animals at its Sentosa Island premises to new facilities.

On October 4 in 2016, Chan, 62, and five of his colleagues were trying to capture a leopard whiptail ray in its reef tank after successfully guiding three others to a holding area. 

Chan dived into the tank to usher the stingray up to a shallow platform. It then struck him in the chest with its 22.5cm-long barb. Chan, who was the senior supervisor of the attraction’s curatorial department, collapsed and eventually died from his injuries in the Singapore General Hospital.

In 2017, then-State Coroner Marvin Bay said in his inquiry findings that the case showed that an animal handler’s expertise, skill and experience would not “invariably insulate” one from animal-inflicted harm.

What the lapses were

Yesterday, the court heard that Underwater World Singapore did not establish a risk assessment and safe work procedures for the capturing of marine animals.

What its standard operating procedures covered were other work activities such as scuba-diving works for tank-cleaning and the feeding of marine animals.

It relied on Chan, who had 25 years of experience at the company, to brief his co-workers on the foreseeable risks such as bodily injuries, and other issues such as capturing methods that he devised.

The safe work procedures it implemented for diving-related works were also found to be inadequate.

These did not address supervision of diving works, as well as maintaining a proper lookout and communication with the diver. These measures were necessary on the day of Chan’s accident, the court heard.

There were other lapses such as:

No one was assigned to look out for divers who had to perform vacuuming works in tanks by themselves

There were no proper communication channels between divers and workers at the surface during feeding sessions

There was no standby diver appointed in the case of a diving emergency

There was no system for pre-diving equipment checks

If a diver falls unconscious in the water, for example, the buddy diver would not pick up on this immediately because there was no line of sight or any form of lifeline provided, the court heard.

The Ministry of Manpower’s prosecutor Mohd Rizal sought a fine of at least S$150,000 (RM460,000), noting that there were four distinct breaches that were serious and negligent in nature.

Underwater World Singapore’s lawyers, led by Ian Lim from TSMP Law Corporation, asked for a lower fine of S$40,000 instead.

Lim told the court “no one denies that it was a very tragic and freak accident”, but the charge did not directly relate to Chan’s death.

District Judge Adam Nakhoda adjourned sentencing to February 25.

Underwater World Singapore could be fined up to S$500,000 under the Workplace Safety and Health Act. — TODY

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