Technician's drowning was 'unfortunate work-related death': Coroner

Wan Ting Koh
·Senior Reporter
·4 min read
Life jackets on a boat.
Life jackets on a boat. (PHOTO: Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — A technician who fell off a platform into the sea in 2019 while crossing to a boat in heavy rain was not wearing a life jacket, while his company had failed to take supplementary safety measures during the crossover. 

Lee Chee Tong's body was found in an advanced state of decomposition three days later, with his identity established through impressions lifted off his right thumb.

The 51-year-old Malaysian’s death was deemed to be an unfortunate work-related death by Coroner Prem Raj, in findings made available on Friday (23 April). The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is also considering taking enforcement action against parties involved under the Workplace Safety and Health Act.

Lee, a technician, had been employed by Rex Refrigeration and Airconditioning Service for more than 20 years. He had attended a safety course and worked on board vessels at anchorages for years.

Day of the incident

On 23 October 2019, he was the designated supervisor to three other technicians for repairs on board the vessel Angelic Glory, whose owner had engaged a local shipping agent to hire service engineers to repair a refrigeration and air-conditioning system.

Investigations by the MOM found that Lee would usually assign one person to collect the life jackets, but he failed to do so on the day. The team realised this when they arrived at Marina South Pier at about 5.30am. The life jackets were eventually forgotten.

The team then boarded a launch boat and arrived at Angelic Glory an hour later, where Lee conducted a briefing on the tasks and the safety measures to be taken.

After completing the repairs, the team went up to the port side of the main deck at about 4:50pm to board the launch boat. Team members observed that it had started to drizzle by this time and the waves were high.

As the team went down a ladder to cross to the launch boat, Lee told them to be careful as the waves were strong. The strong current also forced the boatman to manoeuvre the launch boat a few times before its front was able to come into contact with a lower platform of the ladder.

Lee signalled for a seaman to lower the ladder slightly to be level with the launch boat. He then stepped onto the platform and placed one foot on the launch boat when there was a sudden swell, which caused the front of the launch boat to pitch down and up, hitting the underside of the platform.

The platform then moved downwards, causing Lee to fall into the sea between the launch boat and Angelic Glory.

Team members shouted for help and heard Lee shout “help me” twice, while struggling to stay afloat. The seaman also ran to the nearest life buoy and threw it towards Lee, but he was unable to reach it.

Lee was swept away from the Angelic Glory and eventually disappeared. The Police Coast Guard was informed but authorities were unable to find him. His body was only retrieved off the Eastern Bunkering B Anchorage three days later at about 7:51am.

Three agencies investigate

The incident triggered investigations by the MOM, Maritime Port Authority and the Transport Safety Investigation Bureau. Lee’s son told the investigation officer that while Lee was able to swim and in good health, he was not a strong swimmer.

He noted that his father was an “easy-going person” who was “always smiling and joking away”, and they had last seen each other on 21 October 2019 over video chat. Lee always told his family not to worry about him as work in Singapore was simple and he was handling it well.

MOM findings stated that Lee could have borrowed life jackets from the launch boat or informed his company to prepare life jackets on the launch boat, but this was not done. Angelic Glory and the boatman had also executed a man overboard rescue procedure accordingly.

MOM found that while the platform was kept in position by a pin at each side, these pins could still move within their brackets and could disengage. When the platform's underside was hit during the incident, the pins were dislodged and caused the platform to tilt down. Stanchions were not installed at the platform.

MOM also found that Lee’s company had identified the hazard of falling from the boat during crossovers, and proposed using life jackets as a control measure. 

However, the risk assessment did not identify supplementary measures, such as rejecting the boarding of a vessel in the event of bad weather and ensuring proper means of boarding, such as having handholds on an accommodation level. It had also not established safe work procedures for repairs on vessels and safe boarding of vessels.

Rex Marine and Engineering, which shares the same management as Rex Refrigeration and Airconditioning Service, has since introduced a procedure which requires all persons to wear a lifejacket at all times when travelling in a boat and when transferring between vessels, and when using an accommodation ladder. Transferring between vessels in heavy rain or rough seas has also been banned.

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