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Confidential reporting – A mature culture

Paul Russell is now in his second year as Head of CIRAS, the rail industry’s Confidential Incident Reporting and Analysis System. After year one Russell is looking forward to implementing some of the initiatives and plans that have resulted from the first full year of his leadership at CIRAS.

Says Paul Russell, ‘It’s been a busy and challenging year but I have to say rewarding.’ Russell lists some of the challenges he faced, which include addressing how the scheme is funded; addressing perceptions; looking at the scheme’s value, both financially and in terms of its contribution to industry; stakeholder engagement and scheme Governance.

It’s a long list reflecting the number of issues to address. But Russell is quick to recognise the 19 years that CIRAS has been running and its contribution in providing the rail industry with an alternative reporting route. CIRAS has been providing staff at all levels with a confidential platform on which to raise concerns and have them resolved. ‘Its integrity and success to date has been remarkable, and to last 19 years in an ever changing industry is testament to its purpose and worth.’

So what lies ahead then for CIRAS?

‘The past year has been spent addressing those issues I mentioned, but also developing a new five year strategy. We’ve not had this before, and now we have a focus and aim that allows us to ensure the scheme continues to provide value. We can only do this by driving continuous improvement.’

He continues, ‘The focus is our mission, which is to improve health and safety performance by providing an alternative confidential reporting channel for all staff, whatever their role, to raise health and safety concerns. This is especially important where internal company reporting systems have proved unresponsive, or where staff feel unable, for whatever reason, to use internal reporting systems.’ CIRAS is recognised as being a net benefit to the industry.

‘CIRAS is here to help facilitate a timely resolution of concerns raised by staff.

For the subscribing companies, it also provides a reporting system which complements their internal systems and encourages staff to use internal systems wherever possible.

CIRAS provides a further benefit to the industry, by communicating and engaging with our subscribers and their staff to exploit learning opportunities.’

Plans are afoot to strengthen the scheme. According to Russell talks with Network Rail and others in the industry will look at ways to unify multiple reporting systems and numbers. ‘It’s early days, but without any doubt we should work together to make the reporting lines simple, easy to follow and effective for the users. I am optimistic that we can improve on where we are today and I am working hard with my colleagues to achieve that.’

Paul talks briefly about the Governance work that has been undertaken, and is excited by recent changes in RSSB, which are all contributing to making progress easier whilst remaining challenging.

‘Since I joined CIRAS I have been supported by our Committee which is made up of key industry players including Charles Horton (MD for Southern), Paul Thomas (RSSB Chairman), John Abbott (RSSB), Gary Cooper (ATOC Director), Transport for London’s (TfL) Jill Collis and others from across the entire rail industry.’

The wide range of expertise on offer is helpful. The Committee operates the scheme independently on behalf of the RSSB Board, and we benefit from having voices from all corners of the industry, as well as independent experts from external industries such as oil and gas. The Trades Unions also have seats on the Committee. The RMT have been a great contributor to the effort, and their support has been invaluable.’ Russell makes a point of mentioning Network Rail’s support for the scheme and is working closely with CIRAS to drive forward the changes he feels will benefit the entire industry. ‘Network Rail is a key player, and it is always helpful when they listen and offer their support for the improvements we want to make.’

So does Russell believe that confidential reporting will be around for another 19 years?

‘I often hear people ask if, with an improved safety culture, there is still a place for such confidential reporting. Surely it will be redundant, no longer needed in an open and just culture.’ Russell pauses. ‘Well I can’t buy into that view I’m afraid. What I can say for sure is that today’s railway culture is vastly improved from where it was when CIRAS first started. I was a signaller in British Railways in those days, but I remember that period and today the safety culture has vastly improved. Are we so short sighted that we believe the culture is, or will become, bullet proof? For me this is a dangerous path, and I am pleased that it isn’t a view I hear often. But I do hear it and I don’t agree with it.’

Russell refers to a colleague whom he has been working with, Mark Fleming Professor of Safety Culture at St Mary’s University in Canada. ‘Mark has the right idea and it is refreshing to hear his views. My own view is that the strongest and most mature cultures would always support confidential reporting and see that it is valued. It may not be used often (if at all), but it is there because a good organisation will recognise that people are different and some will be reluctant to report internally. They would also see it is validation that internal reporting systems are working as intended. For them information is key, so reporting systems are vital, full stop.’

The CIRAS Newsletter Edition 51 includes an article by Fleming which talks in detail about cultural maturity. The maturity model covers five steps, which Russell quotes. ‘Pathological – resist confidential reporting at all costs; Reactive – tend to view confidential reporting as a necessary evil; Calculative – the focus is on employee engagement and ensuring a systematic approach to safety. Confidential reporting systems are viewed as a way to engage employees in safety and demonstrate that it is safe to report safety concerns and near miss incidents. Managers often hope that in the future confidential reporting systems will no longer be required, as employees will feel confident in internal systems.

Proactive – a collective effort to preventing harm. Confidential reporting is more a reflection of the safety culture rather than acting as a driver for improvement. Although confidential reporting is rarely used, the system is valued because it is recognised that people are different and some individuals may not feel comfortable using internal systems. And then we have Generative – as I said, values confidential reporting systems. These might not always be used but they are there should you need them. This is what I term as the corporate safety net.’

Electronic and hard copies of the CIRAS Newsletter in question can be requested from editor@ciras.org.uk 

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