SMALL and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) can now apply for grants to engage consultants to design and implement plans to make their workplaces safer.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said yesterday that the Government will pump $8 million into the CultureSafe fund over the next three years.

The money will allow an estimated 250 SMEs to each get grants of up to $30,000 to hire safety and health consultants. These consultants will assess standards at their workplaces and plan initiatives such as talks and workshops for staff.

The Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) Council, a statutory body under the Manpower Ministry, will administer CultureSafe.

Mr Tharman said the fund aims to help more businesses create a "pervasive culture that places workers' safety and health first".

He was speaking at the opening of the Workplace Safety and Health Conference at the Suntec Singapore International Convention and Exhibition Centre.

The two-day event, organised by the WSH Council, saw a turnout of about 700 people yesterday.

Mr Tharman also noted that the workplace fatality rate has fallen from 4.9 deaths for every 100,000 employed persons in 2004 to 2.3 last year.

WSH Council executive director Lai Poon Piau said CultureSafe focuses on getting employers and their workers to buy into the message that safety comes first.

"You can have the systems to keep a workplace safe, but they won't be effective if the people don't believe in them and practise the safety precautions," he added.

Mr Lai said that companies will also be assessed by the consultants after they have rolled out schemes to raise safety standards so that they can see how far they have come and what else needs to be done.

CultureSafe was piloted at seven companies last year and response has been good so far.

Construction firm Megastone Holdings director Chua Chian Hong said the consultant shared tips such as getting supervisors to act as role models for safety.

"Sometimes, workers want to be efficient and some will take shortcuts and endanger themselves. But if their supervisors practise safety precautions and tell them that their safety comes first, they will be more likely to believe in safety," he said.

Director of landscaping firm Evershine Florist Joseph Oh said he took the advice of the consultant to send his workers for talks on safety precautions at work.

It has paid off, for he now notes that they will remember to "wear safety harnesses when climbing trees".